One might have thought that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s pro-American foreign policy over the past year would have scored him some points in Washington. Blair risked his political life to support the U.S.-led war in Iraq. He has persistently and courageously faced down public opposition to his cooperation with the Bush administration and has fervently made the case that Britain and Europe need good relations with the United States. Even as members of his own party call him America’s “poodle,” and his popularity continues to fall, Blair remains firm both at home and in Europe in his conviction that Europe should stand with the United States.
Later this month, Blair will even welcome President George W. Bush for a full-scale state visit, despite the huge anti-Bush protests the visit will certainly provoke.
It was curious, then, that when Blair last month took a step toward patching up his strained but important relations with the leaders of Germany and France by agreeing to discuss their proposal to strengthen the European Union’s defense arrangements, the response from Washington was explosive. Senior American officials took their counterparts in London to task, and Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, called a special session of the North Atlantic Council to demand an explanation. The Americans feared that Blair was going to sell out to the French and Germans on issues of European defense as the price for opposing them on Iraq, and they were bent on stopping him.
U.S. irritation with the Franco-German defense proposal is certainly understandable. Ever since the mid-1990’s, NATO has been searching for ways to enable Europeans to undertake military actions independently from Americans without dividing the North Atlantic alliance and needlessly duplicating existing capabilities. In 1999, after years of painstaking negotiations, the allies finally compromised on a plan that would allow European Union members to undertake autonomous operations “where NATO as a whole” was not “engaged.” The EU would set up its own military institutions, but to avoid political bifurcation and wasteful duplication of resources, it would rely on NATO’s existing operational planning capability, to which its access would be “assured,” in the language of the agreement.
The Franco-German initiative, which is supported in Europe only by Belgium and Luxembourg, breaks that deal. Its timing – in the midst of the biggest transatlantic crisis in decades – seems driven more by a desire to take advantage of European anger at America to push the agenda for a separate European defense than by any genuine need. With the ink still drying on the pages of detailed agreements governing the implementation of the previous arrangements, Paris, Berlin and their smaller partners seem to be walking away from a finely balanced compromise before anyone has had a chance to try it out.
Still, nobody knows all this better than Tony Blair. It is hardly constructive for Washington to rake him over the coals for trying to explore whether there might be a way to make the European initiative more compatible with the Atlantic alliance. Quietly and firmly reminding European friends that it makes sense to preserve a unified alliance is a good idea. It is simply counterproductive for the United States to appear to want to run NATO as if it were the Warsaw Pact, or to call the United States’ most loyal ally to task for even thinking about working with the other Europeans.
The notion of autonomous European military action should not be heretical: it is provided for in the 1999 agreement. Indeed, the problem with European defense today is not that the Europeans are champing at the bit to deploy their growing military power in ways inimical to American interests, but the opposite. Many areas of the world cry out for outside intervention, and Europe lacks the means to act. Recent European interventions in Congo, Sierra Leone, and Côte d’Ivoire, none of which the United States had any interest in joining, have saved many lives and supported American interests in a troubled part of the world. Americans should want to see more such actions—relieving U.S. troops in the Balkans comes to mind—and if acting under an EU rather than a NATO banner inspires greater European support, then let it be so. A more coherent and capable European partner, one that can share in the burdens of global management, is not only desirable, but probably necessary.
The best option for resolving the current impasse remains for Blair to persuade France and Germany to shelve their plan for now and instead try to make the previous compromise work. If they cannot, a second-best option would be for Britain to agree to an EU planning operation, or even join it, but to persuade Paris and Berlin to physically locate it alongside NATO’s to ensure compatibility. This is the very compromise that Blair has proposed. Whatever happens, the Americans should stop seeing every attempt by an ally to win the slightest degree of autonomy as a sign of hostility worthy of punishment.
American overreaction will only fuel the anti-Americanism Washington seems to fear. At a minimum, as loyal an ally as Tony Blair needs to be able to show his public he gets more from his relationship with Washington than the poisoned chalice of a controversial presidential visit.