“Punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia.” That was the pithy summary of American policy towards Europe attributed to then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the spring of 2003, during the peak of the transatlantic bust-up over Iraq. Rice never officially acknowledged using these words, but they did seem to describe the Bush administration’s policies as it sought to deal with continental Europe’s three major powers during the first Bush term. How times have changed. Nicolas Sarkozy’s France now elicits far more praise than punishment; Angela Merkel’s Germany is too important to ignore; and Vladimir Putin’s increasingly confrontational Russia is becoming almost impossible to forgive. All while US relations with previous ‘favoured allies’ such as Britain, Italy, Spain and Poland are getting more complicated, to say the least.
Perhaps the greatest change in US attitudes towards Europe concerns France. Whereas only a few years ago the White House was hardly on speaking terms with Jacques Chirac, US officials today can hardly contain their enthusiasm for Nicolas Sarkozy. The State Department is thrilled at the arrival in the Elysée of an avowed fan of the United States who will no longer automatically oppose NATO or US policy in the Middle East. Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives and once a leading France-basher, sings Sarkozy’s praises as an agent for profound change in France and a model for the Republican Party in the United States. And maybe the most striking symbol of the changing US attitude towards France is that Walter Jones, the North Carolina Republican who renamed French fries “freedom fries” in the House of Representatives cafeteria because of France’s opposition to the Iraq war, has now himself become a leading opponent of the war.
The irony of the changes in approach toward France and Germany is that they come at a time when US relations with some of its initially preferred partners have become somewhat shakier. On President Bush’s first visits to Europe in the summer of 2001, he deliberately boycotted France and Germany and instead made bilateral visits to Spain, Italy, Poland and Britain, sending the message that good friends would be rewarded while critics were punished. Now, the pro-Bush José Maria Aznar, Silvio Berlusconi, Aleksandr Kwasniewski and Tony Blair are all gone, replaced by leaders less sympathetic to, and in the case of Spain and Italy overtly critical of, the Bush agenda. The contrast has been made clear most recently in Britain, where the new Gordon Brown regime seeks to avoid being seen as a pro-American ‘poodle’ like its predecessor. Brown, of course, denies any intention whatever of distancing London from Washington. But the appointment as foreign secretary of David Miliband (who was opposed to the Iraq war, criticised Israel’s bombing of Lebanon last summer, and makes a priority of action to fight climate change); the new emphasis on winning ‘hearts and minds’ rather than using military force to fight the ‘war on terror’; the nomination of former UN official and leading Bush-critic Mark Malloch Brown to a senior Foreign Office post; and recent ministerial speeches seen as critical of the US development agenda all raised eyebrows in Washington. Nobody really expects the phrase ‘special relationship’ to start referring to US-France rather than US-UK, but the transformation of both relationships is real.
And finally there is the idea of forgiving Russia. Bush, we all remember, looked into Putin’s eyes early on and saw his soul, concluding that this was a man he could do business with. Since that time, fuelled by the wealth and confidence that have come from high oil prices and a booming economy, Putin’s Russia has cracked down on domestic dissent, bullied its neighbours, used oil as a political weapon, continued to wage war in Chechnya, launched a cyber-attack on Estonia, and threatened to target Europe with nuclear weapons in response to Bush’s proposed deployment of missile defences in central Europe. In July, Bush took one more stab at a policy of forgiveness, and invited the Russia leader to his father’s home in Kennebunkport, hoping to let bygones be bygones and put the personal relationship back on track. Two days later, Russia unilaterally suspended its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, a cornerstone of post-Cold War arms control in Europe.
Maybe it’s time to find a new slogan.