PARIS -- Britain's prime minister and France's president both visited Washington last week, after a rather bad-tempered Downing Street dinner where nine European leaders tried to find a common European stand on the war in Afghanistan.
They came up with three priorities: emphasis on the political over the military in the war; action on the humanitarian consequences of the bombing; and new negotiations on Israeli-Palestinian settlement. These do not seem high priorities in Washington.
The London dinner was first planned as a British-Franco-German affair, but the Italians, Spanish, Belgians and Dutch, refusing to let the big three set the European agenda, insisted on being included, finally bringing in the European Union's foreign affairs high representative, Javier Solana. Downing Street afterward said the dinner was "very useful," but its chief effect was again to demonstrate the European Union's inability to draw from an array of indubitable good intentions anything resembling a common action plan.
In Washington on Tuesday, during a joint press conference with French President Jacques Chirac, President George W. Bush warned that good intentions are not good enough for members of the anti-terrorism coalition. He said that it is important "for nations to know that they will be held accountable for inactivity. You are either with us or you are against us in the fight against terror."
Mr. Chirac intervened at that point to remind the press that it was a resolution of the UN Security Council that obliged "all nations to join the fight against terrorism ... according to their capabilities." He added that it was also the Security Council that had conferred international "legitimacy" on the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
He was trying to make the point that the world does not automatically endorse the idea of America unilaterally giving the orders on war and peace. But that is what's happening. Europe finds itself once again trying to accommodate a situation where the United States is doing things that make some Europeans uncomfortable, even though they endorse Washington's overall aims.
The New York financier Felix Rohatyn, America's former ambassador to France, gave a talk a few days ago to a Paris audience that cast light on the underlying transatlantic problem, in which France is the critical actor.
He said he felt that the Soviet threat has been replaced since 1989, in the view of many French politicians and intellectuals, "by the menace of American hegemony or of an American-inspired globalization." He thought that the two countries' paths were diverging, and that in favoring a multipolar world, France actually wanted "to make the new united Europe not a partner of America, but an alternative to it." He implicitly ascribed France's actions to "nostalgia for past grandeur."
France's relationship to the United States is not like that of other Europeans. Yet Mr. Chirac's remark identifying the Security Council, not the U.S. government, as the legitimate source of authority in the anti-terrorist coalition, would undoubtedly be seconded by the other European governments.
All of them, including France, are quite aware that the United States is running the war, and intends to remain in control of it. However, they understand - as Washington may not - that this point about Security Council authority is one that could make serious trouble in the future.
The United States needs the coalition, but the coalition depends on the Security Council.
Moreover, all of the Europeans really do see the European Union as an alternative to the United States. They see it as offering ways of life different from the American way, for nations with distinct histories, and cultures different from those of the United States, running market economies with standards, social emphases and social protections different from those in the United States.
They don't see why this kind of Europe can't be a partner at the same time that it is an alternative. The French, being pessimists, are skeptical as to whether the United States really wants partners. They conclude that it's necessary to struggle to defend the European vision of society and international order. That is the difference between them and other Europeans.
Los Angeles Times Syndicate.
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