IT MAY BE A PRANKISH historical irony that the upcoming G8 Summit of industrialized nations will be held in the French lakeside town of Evian. After all, relations between the United States and France have reached a chilly nadir that harks back to the XYZ Affair of 1797-’98, when a potent cocktail of French bullying and demands for bribes snarled Franco-American diplomacy and aroused indignant patriotic fervor in the fledgling United States.
Bullying and bribes have played a role in the 2002-’03 rift, too, but the roles are reversed. As the war with Iraq loomed, it was the United States that used foreign aid and diplomatic muscle in the United Nations Security Council (even, reportedly, to the point of eavesdropping on UN missions) to secure a resolution endorsing an attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime.
France led the defiant resistance to American diplomatic strong-arming on Iraq, angering even US Secretary of State Colin Powell. The result? A petulant spate of anti-French fervor has swept the media and the halls of Congress — a mass hissy fit best exemplified by calls for a boycott of French products and the renaming of the French toast and French fries served in the House Capitol Hill cafeteria as "Freedom Toast" and "Freedom Fries."
The tit-for-tat Franco-American sniping has continued apace as the war in Iraq settles into an untidy occupation. This week’s Evian summit will be the first opportunity US president George W. Bush and French president Jacques Chirac will have to sling mud in person.
The pre-game festivities have already begun. Last week, the Washington Post floated a story (later shot down by the White House) that President Bush might stay on the other side of Lake Geneva in "neutral" Switzerland. Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that "President Chirac is preparing to embarrass President Bush at the forthcoming G8 summit in France by laying out an agenda heavy on environmental, development and economic issues and light on the fight against terrorism."
Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic agree that there’s a crisis. They also agree that there is little chance of mending it at the Evian summit. But they disagree about where to place the blame.
Yves Boyer, deputy director of the Paris-based think tank Fondation pour la Recherche StratŽgique, argues that America has indulged in a heedless bout of French-bashing. "Many in the US want to demonize France," argues Boyer. In Washington, DC, the view seems equally implacable. "I think we’re waiting for Godot a little bit here," says Heritage Foundation scholar John Hulsman. "I think that [the French] are so far off the reservation that there is little hope that they will do the work to repair [the relationship]."
The potential for discord in Evian is not confined to the US-France rift, either. Many of the other G8 nations (Germany, Japan, Russia, and Canada) opposed or remained on the sidelines during the recent US-led invasion of Iraq. Only Great Britain and Italy fully supported the Bush administration’s pre-emptive attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime.
But the summit’s locale will keep the spotlight squarely on the squabble between the US and France — which marks the greatest transatlantic tension in more than 50 years. And things could, in fact, get worse, as Brookings Institution scholar Ivo Daalder noted at a press briefing held on May 21 to preview the Evian summit. Responding to a question about the depth of the rift, Daalder replied:
How far can the divide go? Very far. It’s already very deep. But it can go much further, and I think actually it will go much further. We have reached a point at which the relationship that we’ve had for the past 50-plus years, we’re not going to go back to that. We’re not going to go back to the notion that American foreign policy is mediated through a transatlantic lens.... And the same is true for all European countries.
Thus, the questions posed to the US and the other Western European nations in Evian in the coming week are simple: is this relationship worth saving? And if it is, who will be the first to stop rocking the boat?
US–WESTERN EUROPEAN relations have had an extended spell of relative tranquility. The threat of attack by the Soviet Union and the rest of the Warsaw Pact nations cemented the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The desire to prevent future wars in Europe led to strong US support for the slow but steady creation of the European Union (EU).
Communism’s collapse and the vicious Balkan wars on the EU’s doorstep tested transatlantic ties during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. But George W. Bush’s tenure has reintroduced outright seasickness to US-Europe relations. The Bush administration came to office with the clear intent to de-emphasize relations with Western Europe in order to focus on "big power" diplomacy — a path laid out by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in an article she penned for Foreign Affairs magazine’s January/February 2000 issue. Rice wrote the article, titled "How to Pursue the National Interest," when she served as a policy adviser for Bush’s 2000 campaign. In it, she argued that a "crucial task" facing the next administration was "to focus on relations with other powerful states." The Bush campaign’s European policy was further previewed in the article’s next paragraph — a tangled thicket of policy wonkery in which Rice simultaneously threw open the question of NATO’s value, argued for increased European military spending, and then urged placing strict limits on EU defense growth:
There is work to do with the Europeans, too, on defining what holds the transatlantic alliance together in the absence of the Soviet threat. NATO is badly in need of attention in the wake of Kosovo and with the looming question of its further enlargement in 2002 and beyond. The door to NATO for the remaining states of eastern and central Europe should remain open, as many are actively preparing to meet the criteria for membership. But the parallel track of NATO’s own evolution, its attention to the definition of its mission, and its ability to digest and then defend new members has been neglected. Moreover, the United States has an interest in shaping the European defense identity — welcoming a greater European military capability as long as it is within the context of NATO. NATO has a very full agenda. Membership in NATO will mean nothing to anyone if the organization is no longer militarily capable and if it is unclear about its mission.
Once in office, the Bush administration cleared much of that "full agenda" with bold unilateral strokes that alienated Europe. The White House quickly rejected or withdrew from a series of projects and treaties near and dear to the EU’s heart — including the Kyoto Protocols on climate, the International Criminal Court, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
The White House also squandered the goodwill bestowed on the US after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. As a response to the terrorist attacks, NATO invoked Article V of its founding treaty — deeming 9/11 a blow struck against the entire alliance. It was an article that had never been invoked in NATO’s 53-year history, but the US response was anything but grateful: the Pentagon froze NATO out of the war on Afghanistan.
Thus, the stage was set for the well-publicized battle between the US and the Security Council troika of France, Germany, and Russia over pre-emptive military action against Iraq. Although all three nations opposed the US march to war, and frustrated efforts by Great Britain to broker a compromise, American public opinion fixated on France as the main culprit. And, not surprisingly, France — more than all the other nations that opposed the war — is also facing the Bush administration’s continued wrath.
In the eyes of the Heritage Foundation’s John Hulsman, it is only right that France pay a price for its intransigence. Call it the spoils of war — it is the losers who have to say "sorry" first. "The onus is on the French to repair the relationship," Hulsman argues. "The French made a geopolitical strategic wager. And that’s fine. They wagered that the war would not go well and that Baghdad would be Stalingrad. If that happens, then the UN and their own standing is strengthened. The European Union is more powerful, too, if that happens — and its own leadership position in the EU is more powerful. Those are high diplomatic stakes. When you lose, you pay the price. Right now, they have no influence on the greatest superpower on earth."