Istanbul Summit: An Alliance Waiting for November

Jeremy Shapiro and Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

June 28, 2004

The NATO summit in Istanbul, following on the D-Day anniversary celebrations in Normandy, the G-8 gathering in Georgia and the meetings with EU leaders in Dublin, caps what has arguably been the most intense month of summitry in the history of the Atlantic alliance.

In normal times, summits provide a tremendous opportunity for a U.S. president to showcase his role as the leader of the world’s democracies and for European leaders to demonstrate continued faith in an alliance that has long underpinned their security. But these are not normal times, and the alliance is not what it used to be.

As recently as a few months ago, there still appeared to be a reasonable chance that the summits would be used by both sides to put their disputes behind them. Faced with obvious difficulties in Iraq, the Bush administration had begun to change course. President George W. Bush seemed willing to give the United Nations a more prominent role, transfer full sovereignty to a new Iraqi government and moderate American military tactics to avoid civilian casualties—all policies called for by the Europeans.

Those changes made it possible to imagine Europe accepting American overtures for help. European leaders were also acutely aware that instability and chaos in Iraq would be catastrophic for their countries as well as for the United States.

The American hope was that the Europeans, including the French and Germans, would agree to support a NATO role in Iraq, to begin training Iraqi security forces, to offer debt relief and reconstruction aid, and possibly even agree to provide more troops after the handover of sovereignty, which occured two days earlier than scheduled and took place Monday morning this week.

Now that scenario appears highly unlikely. A series of events—the rise of violence in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal and Bush’s warm endorsement of Ariel Sharon’s controversial plan to pull out of Gaza – have all combined to make the U.S. president so politically radioactive that European leaders fear making common cause with him.

No European leader wants to suffer the fate of former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, who was rejected by voters last March in part because of his close association with Bush and the United States. Pro-American leaders in Britain, Italy, Poland and elsewhere also have to worry that they will now pay an electoral price if they get too close to the American administration.

Given that inauspicious backdrop, the goal of the NATO summit is no longer to get more European troops for Iraq or even to define an explicit NATO role. Turkey, France and Germany all argue that their military contributions would make little difference on the ground, that a NATO failure in Iraq could damage the organization, and that NATO would be no more welcome in Iraq than the United States is.

They add, somewhat implausibly, that NATO troops need to be saved for other contingencies. But the most compelling explanation is that they are simply unwilling to support what they believe is a failed American policy, and are loath to do anything that would help Bush rebut Senator John Kerry’s charges that Bush administration policies have isolated the United States.

Thus the Istanbul summit has a sort of “Waiting for Godot” quality about it—European leaders biding time, neither creating a crisis nor mending fences, in the hope that the American election in November will somehow spare them from the choice between having to deal with Bush and letting Iraq, and NATO, slide into further disarray.

A Kerry victory would probably, in fact, improve the prospects of a trans-Atlantic reconciliation. If nothing else, a change of administration in Washington would remove four years’ worth of acrimony and resentment that has accumulated under Bush. A Kerry team would also probably place a higher premium on allied cooperation and show more respect for allies. But Europeans should not expect too much: the differences between the United States and Europe on many critical issues are deep-seated and will not evaporate simply because of an election in the United States – or, or for that matter, in Europe.

Ultimately, the rift in the trans-Atlantic alliance cannot even begin to heal until the United States and its key allies develop a common approach to the issue that has most divided them—Iraq. Despite differences over the war itself, Washington, Paris, Berlin and London all now at least have a common interest; they want to foster a stable, democratic, self-governing Iraq.

This month’s summits would have been the perfect place to start working together on that goal and mending relations within the alliance. Apparently, that will have to wait at least until the American elections in November.