I commented yesterday on the Franco-German axis that is now undermining NATO. As I said, this is happening a lot faster than I had expected, but the decline in NATO's relevance does not come as a big surprise to me. It's part of a big realignment in the post WWII institutions that is taking place. I expected these processes of transformation or decomposition to take a lot longer. But the UN, EU, IMF, World Bank and NATO are changing and in some cases, they're slowly sliding into irrelevance. The irony in NATO's case is that it is losing its relevance just as it had admitted a new batch of member countries who most desired the benefits of NATO membership.
Aside from the geopolitical reasons of the Franco-German Axis for torpedoing NATO, there are some other factors at work too. The threat we now face is more diffuse. The Soviet missiles, tanks and fighter aircraft were there right across the West German border. That was pretty hard to ignore, even those the pacifist left of Western Europe did its best to try to pretend they weren't there. Even though the French were playing their spoiler game against American interests, their self-interest in maintaining an American security umbrella was strong even never to overplay their hand. They knew that without US protection, their own country would be vulnerable. The force de frappe was not a sufficient nuclear deterrent. Since the fall of communism and the rise of islamofascism as the prime threat to our western way of life, the threat has become more diffuse. There are no huge armies of tanks, aircraft, ships or missiles lined up somewhere. Instead, we have a disparate network of shady regimes in a loose alliance arrayed against us. The threat is real all the same, but it's easier now to fool yourself into thinking it's not there.
This is what emboldens the French in their new pursuit of a more vigorous anti-American foreign policy. The German government has arrived at its current position as a result of the pacifist, anti-American past of its leading figures. They were the ones who in the face of the Soviet threat argued for unilateral disarmament; it's not a surprise that in the face of a new threat they again choose to bury their heads in the sand. It is surprising that both Germany and France seem willing to sacrifice NATO so quickly in order to pursue their dream of a foreign policy identity for the EU. But building an identity based on a negative definition (i.e. anti-US in this case) is never going to be enough.
The clear threat of the Soviets did manage to keep NATO coherent during the cold war. The threat of obliteration that the Soviets posed to the free West focused otherwise muddled minds wonderfully. Now that it is gone and replaced with a more diffuse threat, the muddle wins once again. The desire to take down America a notch or two is apparently too great to resist. It's also doomed to failure, because by their very actions, the Franco-German Axis is undermining whatever is left of their so beloved multilateral institutions, such as NATO and the UN. It boils down to the fundamental reality gap that exists in Berlin and Paris: they don't see the threat, or don't want to see it. Once you admit the threat is there, the anti-American spoiling tactics become too dangerous.
As I mentioned yesterday, one of the big winners out of all this might be Russia. It depends on where Putin will come down in the final question on Iraq. Russia is a country that has recently lost an empire, and is still hurting from that loss. Its nuclear arsenal gives it an an importance far exceeding its economic prowess, and it's the one thing that bestows any respectability on the Russian government at this point. Putin has been making good use of this lopsided position that Russia enjoys, and apparent he has a good relationship with Bush. Putin has also shown far more strategic insight than Schröder or Chirac and seems to understand the strengths and weaknesses of his position better. Pulling Russia firmly into the orbit of the West would be in both the US and the Russian interest, and in the post 9/11 world it seems more likely than ever.
Putin could secure a long-term strategic advantage if he chooses the side of the US now. The Bush Administration has been edging towards a more sympathetic position where it comes to supporting Russia. Recent moves to classify certain Chechen organizations as terrorists is one such step; by acknowledging the link between Al-Qaeda and the Chechens the United States is allying itself with the Russians. A reciprocal gesture becomes more likely. Right now, Putin still has not committed himself and is steering a careful course. He was never expected to become a full-blown supporter of the US line on Iraq, so his reticence has not been a surprise nor has it been seen as a betrayal. But he's been careful not to burn any bridges with Washington, and the rapprochement on the issue of terrorism is bringing Putin closer to Bush. All that Putin needs in order to support the US line on Iraq is a committment from the US that any post-Saddam Iraq would be willing to honor the large debts that the current Iraq owes to the Russians. While the French and the Germans are busily alienating themselves from Washington, Russia might come out of this looking pretty good in Washington.
The long-term strategic benefits would be enormous. America's focus is already shifting away from Paris and Berlin towards economically more dynamic regions such as China or to friendlier countries such as Poland. Russia could have an influence far above its economic importance in the next years if Putin plays his cards right and maintains his friendship with Bush. The alternative for Putin is to throw his weight behind the Franco-German Axis in the hopes of derailing American power in short term. He's probably realist enough to realize that that's an unlikely outcome. So I think he's going to end up being much more supportive of the US position than his latest comments indicate.
I still don't trust the Russians though. Any such moves would be done out of pure-self interest. That's fine as far as it goes, but neither Putin nor Russia have yet recovered emotionally from the loss of empire, and the revanchist emotion runs deep and strong. Still, I am hopeful that such short-term cooperation will lay the foundation for a more constructive course for Russian policy in the medium and longer term.
Posted by qsi at February 12, 2003 10:55 PM
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