The battle of Iraq is over. The battle of Europe has begun.
At least that's how it seems in France and Germany, where the contest over war in the Middle East now shifts to the future of Europe. The recent discovery of bugging devices in the offices of the European Union -- and the near-universal suspicion that they were planted by the U.S. -- only heightens the suspicion and tension between the Cold War allies.
Until now, Europe has meant Germany plus France. Two of the bitterest rivals in the world for more than a century, France and Germany buried the hatchet, sort of, after World War II. With some encouragement from the United States, which hoped a united Europe would help contain the Soviet Union, France and Germany invited neighboring countries into the club that has grown into today's European Union.
They may be partners, but France and Germany have different visions of what that union should be. Think of France as a kid who loves and knows basketball -- how to dribble, shoot and make plays as well as anybody in the world -- but who stopped growing at 5 feet, 5 inches. France loves the game of power politics, and it wants to play in the big leagues, but it's too short for prime time. France hopes the European Union will grow into a superpower that, under French leadership, will challenge the U.S. for world leadership.
That's not the German way. Stung by losses in two world wars, and with a conscience still scalded by the legacy of the Hitler period, Germany sees the EU as an alternative to power politics, not a new and better way to play the old game. Germany is tired of playing games and thinks that it is high time the human race grew up and got serious about problems like the environment and international law.
Here's one way to describe the relationship: Together, Germany and France can afford a fancy sports car. Germany spends all its time polishing it and tinkering under its hood. It is a poky driver, never going more than 40 miles an hour -- even on the autobahn. This drives France crazy. Why have a sports car if you can't lay rubber, the French wonder. Why get the car if you aren't going to go out drag-racing against Uncle Sam?
Until last summer, Germany had always been careful to keep the keys to the car up on a high shelf, where France couldn't reach them. But Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was in big trouble last summer. Unemployment was up, his popularity was down and elections were coming. Desperately reaching around for a popular issue, he attacked the Bush administration's unilateralism and its threats of war against Iraq.
It worked. Schroeder was reelected by a narrow majority and, as his government's popularity continued to plummet, he kept playing the antiwar, anti-American card. With Germany locked into opposing U.S. policy in Iraq, French President Jacques Chirac realized Schroeder had left the car keys on the kitchen table, and France was off to the races.
Since then, Chirac has been driving like a madman -- honking his horn, flashing headlights, cutting in and out of lanes, racing the wrong way up one-way streets and generally having the time of his life. As France obstructed the U.S. at the United Nations -- forcing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to accept a two-resolution process and then blocking a second resolution while grandstanding its opposition around the world -- Frenchmen everywhere swooned with joy. France was in the big leagues, and the crowd was going wild.
The U.S. response was slow in coming, but when it came, it was a shock to both France and Germany. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said that the Franco-German alliance represented "old Europe." "New Europe," said the Defense secretary, backed the U.S. Within days, he had evidence to support his point of view: Ultimately, about 20 European countries would go on record backing the U.S. in Iraq, against five (including France and Germany) that support "old Europe's" viewpoint and four neutrals.
Suddenly, the Americans were challenging the idea that the French and the Germans together were in charge of Europe. Of the EU's five largest members, Britain, Spain and Italy tilted toward the U.S. With the EU committed to eastward expansion, it was about to include even more pro-U.S. countries. The arithmetic is clear: Even if Germany sticks with France, old Europe won't have the votes it needs to control the future foreign policy of the expanded European Union.
A pro-American EU is France's worst nightmare. British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the leader of Europe? Brussels the poodle of Washington? Poland deciding France's foreign policy? France once vetoed Britain's EU application because Britain was too pro-U.S. to be a good European. Hints and threats from Paris suggest that countries that want into the European Union need to put some distance between themselves and the U.S. That is unlikely to happen. When Russia, Germany and France formed a common front against the U.S. at the U.N. Security Council, Central and Eastern Europe grew more desperate than ever to keep strong ties to Washington.
All this makes Berlin very unhappy. Germany has long borders with Poland and the Czech Republic. It has a long and complicated history in Central and Eastern Europe, and it desperately wants to see these countries integrated into the stable institutions of the European Union. Germany wants new Europe in the club, even if that makes the club less anti-U.S. Germany now has to find a way to pick up the pieces. It must take the car keys away from Chirac and go back to driving the European car in its own slow and careful way. Germany might choose Paris over Washington; it can't choose Paris over Washington and Warsaw.
The Bush administration faces two big jobs to keep the battle of Europe from flaring up further. First, it must reward its friends. The leaders who braved public opinion and Franco-German pressure to support the United States in its hour of need should be able to show their fellow citizens the value of good relations with Washington. The Central and Eastern European countries, in particular, must know that the U.S. is a powerful, reliable friend.
Second, the Bush administration must rebuild its relationship with Germany. That will involve some nose-holding on both sides. Germans still don't like Bush's unilateralism, warlike rhetoric and talk of preventive war. And there are plenty of people in the Bush administration who will never forgive Schroeder.
But U.S.-German relations remain today what they have been for 50 years -- the cornerstone of the Western alliance. Fix that relationship and the rest falls into place. Neglect it and the battle of Europe gets worse -- and the U.S., committed to the war on terror, does not need any distractions.