- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2007

News of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s imminent retirement has led to a rash of speculation about who America’s new best friend in Europe is likely to be. The lead candidates are Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s new pro-American president, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Just four years into the Iraq War, an unlikely configuration seems to be emerging: Of Europe’s four biggest powers, those that supported the war (Britain and Poland) are showing signs of ally fatigue, while those that opposed it (France and Germany) desire closer accord with Washington. While the change of mood in Paris and Berlin is a welcome development, it should not distract attention from the need for some eleventh-hour damage control in the relationships with London and Warsaw. Before getting caught up in the glow of new love affairs, U.S. policymakers might want to reflect on three important lessons that recent experience has taught us about alliances.

Lesson 1: Strong alliances are rooted in shared interests, not personalities. Even the most pro-American of politicians will eventually be forced to relinquish a policy course if it is not seen as advancing the geopolitical welfare of their home country. Witness the fates of Jos Aznar of Spain and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. Conversely, a country that shares basic U.S. interests is likely to pursue them even if its leader is not emotionally attached to America. In the end, Britain under Gordon Brown will still be a power whose best chance for wielding global influence lies in policy coordination with Washington; France under Nicolas Sarkozy will still be a power whose international profile is enhanced more by defying U.S. power than by accommodating it; and Germany under Angela Merkel is still a near-great power whose best option is to play mediator to — and not make a decisive choice between — its eastern and western options.

Lesson 2: Even in the closest alliances, reciprocity matters. The Iraq War showed that, even in countries sharing fundamental U.S. interests, America’s stock can plummet if people believe the costs of supporting U.S. policy outweigh the benefits. The best example is Poland, where politicians and the public alike feel they have little to show for Warsaw’s contributions to the Iraq war. Many Britons feel the same way. Asked during a BBC interview what Britain had received for helping America in Iraq, Condoleezza Rice answered, “This isn’t a matter of quid pro quos,” but about fighting tyranny. But a realist like Miss Rice should know that, even in an age of high ideals, international politics still boils down to the age-old art of diplomatic give-and-take. The inability to grasp this basic rule of statecraft has done greater damage to U.S. ties with London, Warsaw and other Iraq war allies than policymakers realize.

Lesson 3: We cannot afford to ignore Lessons 1 and 2. Failing to nurture close and enduring links with traditional partners like Poland and Britain, while pinning hopes on a new generation of like-minded politicians elsewhere, would be a mistake. Despite what some commentators have written, it is unclear whether Mr. Sarkozy or Mrs. Merkel will be able or even willing to paper over significant differences in their countries’ relations with America. We are unlikely, for example, to see a pledge of French reinforcements for Afghanistan or a German delegation to Moscow peddling U.S. missile defense. While working to bridge these differences, Washington should concentrate primarily on regaining the confidence of countries that do share U.S. views but feel shortchanged for their support in Iraq. Put another way, America needs to “tend its base” in world politics.

The point is not that Washington should shun the opportunity to mend fences with France and Germany. Rather, it is that true alliances are built on something more than election results; that they require constant diligence to maintain; and that, in managing our closest alliances, Washington must begin to take a longer-term perspective than it has in the past. As Walter Lippmann said, “An alliance should be hard diplomatic currency, valuable and hard to get, and not inflationary paper from the mimeograph machine in the State Department.” In the years ahead, the value of alliances — and “instinctive” allies in particular — will increase dramatically. Unlike under bipolarity (when America viewed allies instrumentally as a buffer against the Soviet Union) or unipolarity (when it viewed them as disposable) the multipolar landscape of tomorrow will require a more extensive and intelligent use of alliances as instruments of U.S. foreign policy. This new global game board may resemble the Great Power politics of a century ago — an environment that no living U.S. statesman has experience navigating. Coping with this emerging reality will be easier if the global support group that Washington currently enjoys survives the Iraq war intact. While making the most of opportunities for new flames, Washington’s main goal for now should be to take better care of old ones.

Wess Mitchell is director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a policy institute devoted to the study of Central Europe.

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