The debate over Iraq has made painfully clear the growing rift between the United States and Europe. Typically, the image pits the Bush administration against its German and French counterparts, while Britain remains the loyal American ally. This simple characterization does not tell the whole story. While there are strains within the Atlantic alliance, the most important divide is within Europe itself. The old European model, driven by the Franco-German axis, no longer works. Enlargement has changed the European dynamic.

The Atlantic alliance has come under strain. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and its European allies have clashed over everything from Afghanistan to trade issues. Tensions have notably increased in recent weeks, however, as U.S. officials voice growing exasperation over European foreign policy. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been one of the most vocal critics. Earlier this year, he dismissed French and German caution about an attack on Iraq as reflecting the thinking of “old Europe.” According to Mr. Rumsfeld, “the center of gravity is shifting to the east.”

More scathing criticism followed. Last week, he accused France, Germany and Belgium of “inexcusable” stalling after NATO failed to agree on defense measures for Turkey, which Mr. Rumsfeld said would undermine the alliance’s credibility. He said France is a country that always seems to disagree with everyone else, and he grouped Germany with Libya and Cuba as countries that neither want to participate in military action against Iraq nor help rebuild the country after a war.

Mr. Rumsfeld is not the only critic. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was furious after a U.N. meeting late last month when his French counterpart, Mr. Dominique de Villepin, said that “nothing justifies envisaging military action” against Iraq. This statement played well at home, but cost Paris its only friend in Washington. Conservative commentators dismiss European governments, arguing that their policies are driven by envy and fear of being irrelevant.

The French and German position contrasts with that of Britain, which has moved in tandem with the U.S. Last week, Mr. Powell was the voice of restrained anger at the United Nations, while British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw played “bad cop,” reminding the institution that it could suffer the fate of the League of Nations if it did not demand Iraqi compliance with past U.N. resolutions.

Nor is Britain alone among the Europeans in siding with the U.S. Eight European leaders — British Prime Minister Tony Blair among them — recently signed an open letter supporting the U.S. without consulting France or Germany. In sharp contrast to the French and German readiness to distance themselves from the U.S., the prime ministers of Italy, Spain and Poland, to name but three countries, have aligned themselves with Washington to bolster domestic support.

This divide is a key challenge for Europe. The open letter reflects dismay, not only at the stand of Paris and Berlin, but at the presumption that they still speak for Europe. The expanded European Union is no longer willing to follow the Franco-German lead. Attempts by France and Germany to determine the future structure of the EU at the constitutional convention have increased the antagonism. European officials speak openly of being “fed up” with this French-German axis.

Conspiracy theorists see this as part of a grand U.S. plan to weaken Europe and ensure that it stays subordinate to the U.S. They argue that successive U.S. administrations pushed for enlargement of both the EU and NATO to add more pro-American voices to both organizations. While that has been the result, it would be a mistake to forget that Eastern European nations desperately wanted to join both groups to make permanent their break with the past. They saw the history of the two institutions as intertwined with that of the U.S. Their positions reflect the judgment that their countries’ security is best ensured by closer ties with the U.S.

While these strains may be sharper than ever before, trans-Atlantic squabbles are not new. That means realism — not a complete dismissal of the dangers — is in order. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has cautioned against “primitive anti-Americanism,” and said the U.S. was irreplaceable as a factor in ensuring global security, adding that the two countries “are good friends and allies.” The French also appear to be positioning themselves for a shift if it becomes apparent that they risk becoming irrelevant or, as a permanent member of the Security Council, the only obstacle to concerted international action against Iraq. “Old Europe” may be cynical and opportunistic, but it has always been realistic as well.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.