Jan 28, 2003 | 15:38 GMT

9 mins read

Rumsfeld's 'Old Europe' Remarks Highlight France's Weakness

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's recent comments about "old Europe" have renewed the focus on the rising tensions between Washington and Paris. The United States is outperforming France on all major levels, and Paris' own platform for facing down Washington's power — the European Union — rapidly is evolving beyond its control. France's biggest problem going forward is that although it can damage some American interests, it no longer has the capacity to outflank the United States in any meaningful way.
European tempers flared on Jan. 22 when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — referring to French and German opposition to a U.S.-led war against Iraq — said the two countries represent "old Europe." The comment, not surprisingly, hit an especially sensitive nerve in Paris, which is finding itself increasingly at odds with its ally across the Atlantic. It is clear that France cannot hope to compete with the United States on the global stage. It is the United States — not France — that reigns as the global technology leader. France has less than one-sixth of the GDP of the United States and only one-fifth its population. Washington consistently ranks at the top of productivity indices, while France's once highly ranked position has weakened steadily over the past decade. France might maintain one of Europe's strongest militaries, but defense spending is a paltry 7 percent of the United States'. This pervasive economic and military power has allowed Washington to expand influence in regions that a lesser power couldn't even consider. The United States now even has a tight relationship with most of the Central European and Caucasian states, much to the chagrin of their former imperial master, Russia. France's former colonies have not been exempted either. The United States has used energy diplomacy to become the dominant foreign power throughout West Africa and recently began free-trade negotiations with Morocco. It also is exploring the option of signing similar deals with southern African states as well. In the French mind, this activity has transformed the United States into a "hyperpower," one that France is discovering it lacks the ability to counter even in its own backyard. The U.S.-French Split and the Creation of "Europe" France's "problem" with U.S. power began shortly after World War II. As its post-war recovery solidified, Paris began to realize that Washington would not sacrifice its Cold War goals in favor of French efforts to reassert colonial claims. These two conflicting ideologies eventually crashed headlong in 1956, when the absence of U.S. support caused a fuming France to follow a humiliated United Kingdom into withdrawal from the Suez. London learned the bitter lesson that it could never again afford to be on the wrong side of Washington, but Paris took away a very different lesson: Never again be forced to depend upon the United States. For France to shape events on the global stage, it first needed to become — or create — a global power. It is no coincidence that the Treaty of Rome that formed the European Economic Community was signed less than six months after the Suez hostilities began. It was convenient that anything that helped band western Europe together enjoyed strong U.S. support, and the European Community rapidly became a useful complement — even if clearly a junior partner — to NATO in the Cold War. But in the years since, France has discovered that a united Europe is not the vehicle of its ambitions that it once hoped. A European super-state is useful to France only if it can control its policies. At first, exerting such control across the Continent was child's play for Paris. Germany was deep in its post-war apology, ceding the political reins to Paris along with billions of dollars to subsidize French agriculture. Italy was just as disorganized after the war as it had been before, and Rome gladly let Paris lead the way. That left only the Low Countries of Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxemburg, which combined could barely act as a supporting actor on the French stage, much less the global one. But the power of these six core states was not enough to reliably challenge either Washington or Moscow, so France had to export the idea of a "united" Europe beyond the states it could reliably control. This is where Europe began to get away from Paris' control. The next three members to join the European Community were deeply pro-U.S. Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Ameriphobic Greece joined in 1981, followed by staunchly pro-Europe Portugal and Spain in 1986. It was at this time that the idea of a common European foreign and military policy came into vogue, with Paris believing France would serve as a natural spokesman. But the inclusion of Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1996 — all political and military neutrals — almost immediately undermined this grand goal. The Iraqi Fly in the European Ointment It took Rumsfeld's comments to drive home how dysfunctional the idea of Europe as political superpower truly is. The United Kingdom, Denmark, The Netherlands, Spain and Italy almost instinctively adhere to U.S. security policy, leaving France able to rely only upon Germany. But even Germany is not the same pliable partner — nor the economic dynamo — it once was. The current chumminess is due only to Germany's opposition to U.S. goals on an ideological level; Germany has mercilessly downsized its military since the end of the Cold War, which is why it does not want to see anyone use their military to shape global developments. It was only a few months ago that Paris and Berlin were bickering over the future development of Europe, and Germany has no intention of abandoning its U.S.partner. In fact, even German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who has delivered anti-U.S. statements in the past, made a point of capping a trip to the Middle East on Jan. 27 by reiterating that despite some very real points of disagreement, Washington remains Germany's "most important partner." Other European partners have been far less kind to Paris' ego. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi took the prize Jan. 27 for most abrupt dismissal of a French effort to create a common EU position on Iraq in opposition to the United States, calling Paris' move "perfectly useless." The Widening Split Economically, the EU has not proven the paragon that France hoped for either. The Union has outpaced economic growth in the United States only once in the past 13 years, and the total EU economy is nearly a third less than its U.S. counterpart. That's without the bulk that Canada and Mexico add to Washington's economic policies, courtesy of NAFTA. In many ways, the EU has become a victim of France's success. France has entrenched its own model of Euro-socialism throughout Europe. The problem is that Franconomics has not proven itself up to the task of competing head to head with the U.S. brand of capitalism. France's center of power has always been Europe, but even here Paris is seeing its position weaken in the face of U.S. pervasiveness. Nearly all EU states count the United States as one of their top three trading partners. American technology and personnel are among the very few things that enable the continent's militaries to work together. France's difficulties in controlling its current 14 EU partners, however, are nothing compared to the tribulations it will face when the Union expands by bringing in 10 Central European states in 2004. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are far more pro-American in their politics than nearly any current EU state. Part of this is due to these states' perceived abandonment by the European powers in the days preceding World War II. Europe has not finished growing, and some may even describe it as dynamic, but it is no longer a beast that France can command. Very soon it will have a mind — or 24 minds — of its own. Without Europe, France has very few options. While Paris has proven impressively adept at forging political deals with non-European powers that have at times included China, India or Russia, French leaders know that none of these relationships are anything more than alliances of convenience. None of these states count France among their important economic relationships, but all of them look to the United States. France will continue to act as a nexus, giving anti-American alliances a mantle of respectability and sophistication, but such relationships are by their very nature transient. Likewise, Paris' former colonies may prove useful political chips, but only so long as France's market access remains open and its development assistance is steadily doled out. In such regions, France can obstruct U.S. programs around the edges, but the U.S. economic, political and military presence is too resilient, multifaceted and omnipresent to obstruct consistently. Even France's avenues for protest are limited. The United States barely registers the existence of the United Nations as it is, limiting Paris to the use of its veto in the Security Council. It could howl in frustration within the European Union, but after 2004 it will be on the defensive on a range of issues, as the newer members join forces with Britain to update Europe's economic structure to parallel the U.S. model. Even in NATO, the establishment of the alliance's "coalition of the willing" structure prevents Paris from sabotaging U.S. efforts. And besides, Paris withdrew from the military aspects of NATO decades ago, so a more confrontational stance will hardly be noticed. This leaves France playing the spoiler on the international front. The problem, however, is that in many ways Paris' goals mesh with Washington, making any broad effort to derail U.S. programs at least mildly self-defeating. A key example of how France might act in the future would be to scupper the World Trade Organization's Doha round of global trade talks, but even here the payoff would be limited. The United States is far more able to pursue bilateral agreements to supplement — or replace — multilateral accords, while France is limited by the EU laws it designed.

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