In recent months George W. Bush has rediscovered the virtues of having allies and working within alliances. In every big challenge confronting the US — from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Iran to North Korea — he has sought to enlist the help of America’s traditional allies. But in many cases the very allies who bitterly complained about the US president’s unilateralism only a short time ago have been reluctant to do their part in helping multilateralism succeed.
Nowhere is this more true than in Europe. Last month’s NATO summit should have been the time for a rousing call for the alliance to act effectively and transform itself into an organisation that would establish partnerships around the world to address common threats. But progress was minimal, because the Europeans were unable to seize the opportunity presented by an America that has realised it cannot solve these problems alone. Even on current multilateral efforts, key Europeans are falling short.
Take Afghanistan. While Mr Bush originally declined to make the war there a NATO operation, he eventually saw that having the alliance lead there would both lessen the US burden and enhance prospects for success. So, for the past two years, NATO has been in charge of stabilising the country and has been steadily adding (mainly European) troops. Last month the US put the bulk of its own forces in Afghanistan (some 12,000 troops) under NATO command, a sign of the faith it now places in the alliance.
Yet, even as NATO has accepted more responsibility, some key allies have failed to do their share. For months European countries refused to send helicopters that NATO commanders said were essential, and a call for an additional 2,000 troops similarly went unheeded. Worse, most allies that did send forces to Afghanistan placed conditions on how, where and when they could be employed — severely reducing their effectiveness. Mr Bush’s plea at the recent Riga summit to lift these caveats mostly fell on deaf ears. The best that allies such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain were prepared to do was to commit in principle to assist allies in an “emergency”. Meanwhile, the alliance confronts the spectre of failure in Afghanistan because, apart from the Americans, only the British, Canadians, Dutch and Australians are willing to fight in the most dangerous areas of the country.
Or take Iran. Eighteen months ago Washington bought into the European Union-led approach of trying to negotiate an end to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. The US offered economic incentives and later declared its willingness to talk directly with Tehran if a deal proved possible. In return, Britain, France and Germany agreed to consider sanctions if Iran refused to negotiate seriously.
Yet, although it became clear that Tehran was not prepared to take even the first step of suspending its uranium enrichment programme, efforts to impose real sanctions have so far been opposed by the Europeans.
It is not in every instance, of course, that the Europeans have failed to follow through. In fact, over Lebanon it was Italy, France and Germany that agreed this summer to deploy their forces in a beefed-up United Nations force to help end the war between Israel and Hizbollah. Europeans account for most of the 10,000 troops now deployed there — and not a single American is among them.
So genuine co-operation and burden sharing — real multilateralism — is possible and, indeed, necessary. Lebanon cannot simply be an isolated case. An effective NATO is the sine qua non of democratic multilateralism. But to be truly effective, NATO must seek partnerships with countries such as Japan and Australia that share its values and can contribute to its operations. The dismissive response to this suggestion by Jacques Chirac, French president — that “the United Nations remains the only organisation with a universal vocation” — completely misses the point. NATO should have no universal pretensions but must be able to operate globally with democratic partners.
Europeans must show they can act when action is needed. But there is no need for them to take up these burdens alone. Only by beginning to develop NATO as a global institution of democracies will the allies be capable of not just talking the multilateral talk, but actually walking the multilateral walk.