New face of ‘Old Europe’ gives U.S. reason to smile

Times Staff Writer

France’s new president goes jogging in an NYPD T-shirt. Britain’s prime minister-apparent likes to vacation on Cape Cod. And Germany’s chancellor once got an impromptu back rub from President Bush.

Welcome to the new “old Europe.”

At the beginning of 2003, Washington had all but written off the historical power brokers of continental Western Europe. France and Germany, dead set against going to war in Iraq, were “a problem,” then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. The Bush administration’s favor had tilted toward the east, where it found solid support among the European Union’s newcomers.

Four years later, a new set of players emerging on the old Europe bench could tip the balance back toward the Atlantic. Britain, France and Germany are fielding potentially the most pro-U.S. group of leaders to emerge in Western Europe in years.


“In many ways, the galaxy of international leaders has never been better for the United States,” said Erik Goldstein, head of the international relations department at Boston University.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as French president, Angela Merkel’s earlier debut as German chancellor and Gordon Brown’s expected succession as British prime minister bring into play three leaders who share a commitment to engagement with the United States and ideological orientations that more or less coincide with Washington’s on issues as far-ranging as liberal economics and Israel.

Four years after some Americans were debating whether to change the name of French fries because of then-French President Jacques Chirac’s fierce opposition to certain Washington policies, his successor, through most of his campaign, was dubbed “Sarko the American.”

Brown, a brilliant and bookish student of policy long fascinated by U.S. political thought, counts among his friends Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Merkel grew up in the “new” Europe of East Germany with a penchant for Western bluejeans and has made repairing the connections between Washington and Berlin a starting point for her administration.

“On balance, the changing of the guard is good for the United States, and good for the Atlantic relationship,” said Charles A. Kupchan, director of Europe studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The U.S. now has in Paris and in Berlin leaders that are pro-American and pragmatic.

“I don’t want to suggest that we’re out of the woods on the Atlantic relationship,” he said. “I think it’s going to be very rocky. But rocky is better than where we’ve been, which is in the abyss.”

The caveats, and they are many: The emergence of a new triumvirate in Europe depends first on whether leaders succeed over the next few months in negotiating a new European Union Constitution aimed at streamlining lethargic institutions and crafting a uniform voice for European policy, a goal Europeans argue benefits the U.S. as much as it does Europe.

And Washington has no illusions that Euro-American relations will do an overnight about-face. For one thing, the departure of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, expected June 27, means the loss of the most reliable U.S. ally on Iraq.

“Blair was quite unusual in saying to Bush, ‘You know, where the war on terror is concerned, whatever you do, I’m with you.’ I can’t think of any British prime minister that has done that,” said Christopher Meyer, who was Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. until 2003.

Brown’s views are not yet clear on a wide range of foreign policy issues that probably will determine the agenda for the foreseeable future. The treasury chief has made his mark with Britain’s booming economy but has said next to nothing about how he would handle Europe’s substantial energy dependence on Russia. Likewise, his views on the Arab-Israeli conflict and tough sanctions against Iran are all largely unknown.


The ‘poodle’ image

Brown, who knows he has to distance himself from his predecessor’s image as Bush’s “poodle,” has said that British “national interest” will be a component in the relationship with the United States.

He emphasized that the relationship between a British prime minister and a U.S. president “must and ought to be a very strong one,” keeping in mind that “the values that the American people hold and the values that the British people hold -- our belief in liberty, the dignity of the individual, our belief that we should work together in making progress in dealing with common problems -- these values have been shared right across the decades, right across the centuries, whichever prime minister, whichever president is in power.”

In any case, most analysts say, no full detente with Europe is possible until Bush leaves the White House.

“He’s deeply unpopular, and he’s a lame duck,” said Michael Cox, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

“What’s the point in spending political capital in trying to build a partnership with a president who, A) they frankly don’t like; B) whose policies they oppose; and C) who’s going to be out of power in another two years? Bush’s unpopularity in Europe is now permanent.”

The general pro-American leanings of the new European kids on the block are philosophical, not personal, and they are liable to ebb and flow with the changing tides of U.S. policy.

In France, Sarkozy already has distanced himself from Gaullist tradition, which asserted independence from the United States and cultivation of strong ties to the Arab world, and charted a new rhetorical course by emphasizing human rights as a force in foreign policy.

He backed up that talk two weeks ago by appointing as foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, a Socialist humanitarian activist whose views toward the U.S. and Israel resemble the president’s. But Sarkozy also has made it clear that he does not intend a complete about-face from decades of French policy.

On election night, “he reiterated French friendship for the USA, but I don’t know any politician who says otherwise,” said Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

“He also put on the table the major challenge of global warming, and says it will be a priority for France, while we know that the current U.S. government is more or less reticent about this issue,” he said. “So we return to the well-known approach of ‘alliance but not alignment.’ ”


Constitution question

Merkel has worked to repair the damaged relations between Berlin and Washington over the Iraq war. She has said she will not send German troops to Iraq and has chided Washington for its treatment of prisoners at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but she also has increased German military involvement in Afghanistan.

Preferring pragmatism and instinct over rhetorical flourish and grand plans, Merkel is pushing for a unified Europe that by definition will be less rooted in the traditional German-French axis, encompassing the voices of all 27 EU members.

“It has become a totemic issue: Let’s finally solve the constitution question. Otherwise we have to ask ourselves, are we still capable of acting as an EU?” said Jan Techau, head of the European program at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

Much will depend on how Washington chooses to frame the issues with which it will engage Europe in the coming years, European analysts said.

“If the U.S. decides to have a policy that is seen as too unilateral, or multilateral in form but not substance, I think things will not change,” Boniface said. “The new French president will bring a new style to French diplomacy, but French interests will not change.

“Everything will depend on what our partners do.”


Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman and Christian Retzlaff in Berlin and Sebastian Rotella and Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris contributed to this report.



Fresh attitudes

Nicolas Sarkozy

The new president of France, who has been called “Sarko the American,” is believed to want “alliance but not alignment” with Washington. He wants good relations but differs with U.S. policy on global warming.


Gordon Brown

Britain’s Treasury chief, who is expected to become prime minister soon, has not made his views clear on many foreign policy issues. He says U.S. and British values “have been shared right across the decades, right across the centuries.”


Angela Merkel

The German chancellor has said she will not send troops to Iraq and has criticized the U.S. prison in Cuba. But she has worked to repair U.S. relations damaged by the Iraq war and has increased military involvement in Afghanistan.