However undiplomatic it may have been, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's reference to French and German concerns about a possible U.S. attack on Iraq as opposition from "old Europe"-which he contrasted to support for America's position from "NATO Europe" where "the center of gravity is shifting to the east"-has the ring of truth.
Although Paris and Berlin, and other Western European governments, have been key American allies for decades, it was virtually inevitable that their willingness to subordinate their own perspectives and preferences to those of Washington would subside after the collapse of the Soviet threat. This should have been self-evident in the case of France, which often defiantly resisted U.S. leadership even at the height of the Cold War. Still uncertain of its own power, Germany has been considerably slower in emerging from the American shadow-though it seems to have gained significant momentum under the liberal government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The fact that not only power but also politics plays a role here is demonstrated by the greater sympathy shown toward the Bush Administration's foreign policy objectives by conservative governments in Spain and Italy.
While there is already ample evidence of the Clinton Administration's global foreign policy naïveté, increasingly troubled U.S. relations with "Europe" are also in part a consequence of its misguided approach. Observers may recall that the Clinton team at first offended our European friends perhaps more deeply than Secretary Rumsfeld by moving the center of gravity of international affairs even farther to the east-to Asia. Then, the former president almost blindly supported a process of European integration that was viewed with considerable skepticism by many citizens of America's closest ally, Britain, and that has still uncertain implications for the United States. The current result is a more unified Europe dominated by two governments determined to block President Bush's efforts to address what his administration has defined as a key U.S. priority.
France and Germany are fully justified in having their own preferences and are not obliged to support the United States whatever its course. Still, neither government has been willing to commit to the spending necessary to be America's military partners-and Europe's smaller economies have generally followed their lead. Instead, Paris and Berlin (and some European institutions) have increasingly tended toward moralistic criticism of the United States (and others) from the sidelines. Declining to support U.S. policy is one thing; condemning it is another matter entirely.
Of course, notwithstanding differences on Iraq, France and Germany do generally share American values-and those values have much deeper roots than in Central and Eastern Europe, not to mention Russia. Yet, in important areas, European and American values genuinely diverge. For example, Europeans are clearly considerably more reluctant to apply violence both in international affairs and domestically, through capital punishment. Interestingly, it is in precisely these areas that American approaches converge with those of some of our new allies, particularly Russia. At the same time, Russians and some Central Europeans (not to mention the Israelis) are becoming increasingly frustrated with Europe's propensity to offer lectures after refusing to act itself.
Remarkably, Moscow is now more willing than Paris or Berlin to work with Washington on Iraq. Within days of statements by French and German leaders opposing U.S. military action, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his government would be prepared to cooperate more closely with America if presented with credible evidence of Iraqi violations. Amplifying those remarks in a small dinner at The Nixon Center last night, top Kremlin aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky went even farther, saying that Moscow did not need to see "a smoking gun" but only "a gun." At the same time, new NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe are eager to prove themselves to the United States, which in some ways has been more hospitable to them than Western European governments reluctant to disturb the political and economic status quo on the continent.
Russia's clear desire for a meaningful strategic relationship with the United States-as well as that of our new NATO allies-is a major opportunity for American foreign policy in the 21st century. European countries, including those in Secretary Rumsfeld's "old Europe", can and should remain important American partners-but it is also evident that they have their own interests and priorities that they will pursue. Russia and the new NATO members obviously have their own interests and priorities as well, but seem increasingly willing to identify them with the United States in many circumstances. Effective work with these new partners-through NATO with the Central and East Europeans and through the United Nations Security Council with Russia-could significantly advance U.S. interests and in some cases might even help to bring our other allies along.
One final point. France and Germany have been key American allies for decades and remain important international players. Accordingly, the United States should make a serious effort to accommodate their preferences when possible. However, such accommodation makes sense only when it is mutual; that is, when France and Germany are also prepared to adjust their own positions to satisfy U.S. priorities in some instances. If it becomes clear that they are not willing to do so, neither should be surprised by a strategic realignment that could bring the United States considerably closer to a new "center of gravity" in Europe at their expense. And in that case, Secretary Rumsfeld's remarks could prove to be more substantial than he himself may have expected.