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French, U.S. Bicker, and Some Worry

Times Staff Writer

A clash of civilizations was on display in the U.N. Security Council on Friday. But it wasn’t the long-feared clash between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim Middle East; it was a collision of global ambitions between the United States and its oldest ally, France.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin didn’t merely disagree on how to disarm Iraq, they clashed head-on over basic principles of foreign policy.

“We are willing to try to give peace a chance,” De Villepin said, implying that the United States is all too ready to go to war.

“There are some members of the council who don’t want to face up to [their] obligations,” Powell replied, alluding to France.

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Underlying the sharp exchange was a deeper division that many foreign policy scholars fear will mark the coming decade -- and limit the ability of any U.S. administration to work its will: the growing tendency of Europeans to see their interests as conflicting with those of Americans.

“It’s a continuing fact, and it’s as bad as can be: Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus,” said Robert Kagan, a conservative foreign policy analyst who adapted that phrase in an essay last year.

Kagan argues that Americans are willing to use military power to solve problems around the world because they have so much of it -- and that Europeans are reluctant to use it because they have so little.

“The United States has generally been comfortable with the concept of diplomacy backed by force,” he said. “But it appears to be an increasingly alien concept in Europe. The French have never suggested a deadline on Iraq. There appears to be no moment at which they are willing to use force.”

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Moreover, scholars say, French President Jacques Chirac sees an opportunity for his nation to play a new great-power role on the world stage by restraining the mighty United States -- especially in the Security Council, where U.N. rules give France a veto.

In this view, France opposes the United States on Iraq not merely because it wants to preserve commercial contracts in Baghdad, as many Americans believe, but because it has genuine concerns about U.S. policies -- and also sees a chance to increase its influence within Europe and around the world.

Not every European country is following France’s lead. Chirac has won the support of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for his opposition to war. But prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain have all given vocal support to President Bush.

That division, too, is serious.

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“The French believe they are fighting for the soul of Europe, and they don’t believe they are going to lose,” Kagan said. “This isn’t just pettiness on their part.”

Philip H. Gordon, director of the Center on the United States and France at Washington’s nonpartisan Brookings Institution, agreed.

“The French believe that most of the world thinks it is a very bad idea to use force against Iraq unless you really have to, and the polls suggest that they are right,” he said.

“Chirac may not be speaking for all of Europe, but he thinks he is speaking for most Europeans.

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“The French view of U.S. power is that you can be a leader, but that doesn’t mean you get to decide for the rest of the world,” Gordon added. “That’s classic French diplomacy. It’s been that way for 50 years. It’s not anti-Americanism. It’s a defense of French prerogatives.

“It doesn’t mean they will oppose the United States on everything,” Gordon said. “They supported us in Afghanistan. They were major players in Bosnia and Kosovo. They have given strong support on North Korea. It depends on the issue.”

And France is especially prickly about preserving the authority of the Security Council, because that is one of the only forums where it is equal in power to the United States -- on paper, at least.

The Security Council is “the only place where they have power, and it’s negative power -- it doesn’t enable them to lead or shape anything,” said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who once tended the U.S.-European alliance as an aide to then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. But the French are also “trying to turn the European Union into a vehicle for opposing the United States on economic issues,” Sonnenfeldt added.

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In public, Powell and other U.S. officials have been elaborately polite and unruffled about France’s role on Iraq, describing it hopefully as a passing difference between fast allies.

“We are friends,” Powell said Friday. “We agree on many, many things, and we often have strong disagreements. And as you can only do with a friend of 225 years, you do it with respect, and you do it with the understanding that sooner or later we’ll find a way forward and the friendship will continue.”

But in private, Bush administration officials have been seething -- and scathing -- about Chirac, dismissing his position on Iraq as “cynical” and worse.

Officials insist that they aren’t concerned about a broader estrangement between the United States and Europe. The support that Bush has won from Britain, Italy and Spain -- and from Eastern Europe, which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dubbed “the New Europe” -- should calm those fears, they argue.

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But Kagan and others are not so sure.

“I don’t know which is the New Europe,” said Kagan, who examines the issue in his book, “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order.”

“It could be that France and Germany represent where Europe is going, and the others are simply trying to hold on to the past. The support they have given to Bush isn’t really about Iraq, it’s about preserving the transatlantic alliance.”

He predicted that those ties will continue to erode.

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“France is behaving already as if it wants to destroy NATO,” Kagan said, “and at this rate it will succeed.”

Sonnenfeldt sees a longer-term trend at work.

“The French have had this problem ever since 1762, when they lost both Canada and India to the British,” he said. “Ever since, they have made several efforts to recoup -- Napoleon, De Gaulle. In this century, instead of the British, it puts them in conflict of the United States. But that doesn’t mean anyone else will necessarily follow.”


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