Old vs. New Europe isn't new

Posted: Feb 21, 2003 12:00 AM
``It is not well brought up behavior. ... They missed a good opportunity to shut up.'' -- French President Jacques Chirac, berating Eastern European countries for supporting the U.S. position on Iraq, Feb. 17 WASHINGTON--Chirac's outburst made headlines. It was clumsy, impolitic and revealing. But the bullying of New Europe by Old Europe is not new. Last August, for example, Romania signed an agreement with the United States promising not to extradite Americans to the International Criminal Court. Romania is applying to join the European Union, and the European Union, for which the ICC is a pet project, was not amused. It registered its displeasure with Romania and then warned ``other candidate countries which have also been approached by the United States'' not to ``make any more moves to agree to sign such an accord.'' A few months earlier, the prime minister of the Czech Republic was attacked for making highly ungenerous statements about Yasser Arafat. ``Such language is not what we expect from a future member state,'' declared the European Union, an unsubtle threat to the Czech application for EU membership. The division between the New Europe (newly liberated Eastern Europe) and the Old Europe (centered around France and Germany) has long been visible. As the center of gravity of American influence in Europe has shifted east to the Iron Curtain countries, it is no accident, comrade, that the only state dinner President Bush has hosted (apart from the traditional one for the president of Mexico) was for the president of Poland. The Poles, and their Eastern European neighbors, have an immediate personal experience of life under tyranny--and of being liberated from that tyranny by American power. The French and many of those demonstrating in the streets of Western Europe last weekend are six decades removed from their liberation. They think freedom is as natural as the air they breathe, rather than purchased at the price of blood--American blood in no small measure. This division in experience sets the stage for the division in politics. And for France' s fury at finding an American fifth column in the New Europe. When 13 East European states came out in support of the United States on Iraq, Chirac lost all reserve. His scolding of the Eastern Europeans has inadvertently demonstrated how much France's current dispute with the United States is not really about Iraq. Sure, France has contracts and loans that will be jeopardized if Saddam is deposed. And French leaders may have dirty hands from dirty dealings that will show up when Saddam's archives are opened postwar. Yet the lengths to which France has gone to oppose the United States show that the stakes are much higher. France has gone far beyond mere objection, far beyond mere obstruction. It is engaged in sabotage so active that it has taken to verbally attacking weaker states that dare take the American side. Why? Sensing a world deeply uneasy about the American policy on Iraq, France seized what it saw as a unique opportunity to change the dynamics of the post-Cold War world. During the Cold War, Charles de Gaulle and his successors had tried breaking free of the United States by ``triangulating'' with the Soviets. De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO's military structure. France kept offering itself as a ``third force.'' That posturing went nowhere because France, like everyone else, depended ultimately on American power for defense against the Soviet threat. With the end of the Soviet threat, everything changed. A unipolar system emerged with the United States dominant and unchallenged. The Iraq crisis has provided France an opportunity to create the first coherent challenge to that dominance--and to give France a unique position as leader of that challenge. Last Friday at the Security Council was the high water mark. France stood at the head of an impressive opposition bloc--Germany, Russia, China, perhaps seven other members of the Council and dozens of other smaller countries--challenging American policy, and, implicitly, American hegemony. The world has not become bipolar. But we have just witnessed the first serious breach of the post-Cold War unipolarity--engineered not, as many expected, by Russia or China, but by France. France is reaching to become not only the leading power in Europe (hence the pique with those pesky Eastern Europeans), but the leader of a new pole of world power opposite the American ``hyperpower.'' Not a bad vocation for a country whose closest brush with glory and empire today consists of patrolling the swamps of the Ivory Coast.