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U.S./EU: After The War, What Will Become Of The Trans-Atlantic Relationship?

  • Jeffrey Donovan

With the Iraq war's end apparently in sight, what is to become of the trans-Atlantic relationship, the chief casualty of the months-long diplomatic hostilities that preceded the conflict? Some say relations will return to normal. But others see the start of a seismic shift in international relations. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports from Washington.

Washington, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The run-up to the Iraq war pitted traditional U.S. allies France and Germany against Washington in its push for regime change in Iraq. The result, analysts agree, was a blow to trans-Atlantic relations. France and Germany joined Russia and China to block any U.S.-British effort at the United Nations to win backing for the use of force against Baghdad. London and Washington, rather than risk a losing vote for war at the UN Security Council, decided to drop diplomacy -- and the conflict's first bombs were dropped on March 20. Yet at a certain point in the pre-war debate, analysts say the key issue appeared to be less about Iraq's disarmament than about containing what the French call the American "hyper-power" in a bid to create a more balanced system of world affairs. Now, with the war's end apparently coming into sight, what is to become of the damaged trans-Atlantic relationship? Some say relations can, and will, return to normal. Yet that theory is already being put to the test. America and Europe appear to be yet again in complete disagreement over the role of the United Nations in postwar Iraq. France, Germany and Russia have said they want a central role for the UN in administering, with Paris threatening to veto any Security Council resolution that would bless a U.S.-led administration of postwar Iraq. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also keen to carve out a key role for his organization. Annan said yesterday in New York: "I do expect the UN to play an important role [in postwar Iraq], and the UN has had a good experience in this area, whether it's an issue of political facilitation leading to the emergence of a new or interim administration. [And] we've done quite a bit of work on reconstruction, working with donor countries and with other UN agencies." But Washington has made it clear that while it favors some UN role, it plans to administer the country for months to come to see to it that security is maintained and a representative Iraqi government eventually takes over. The impasse, the subject of talks today in Belfast between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, is potentially explosive, says Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington: "I think we are heading for another major trans-Atlantic rift over this UN question. I cannot see the Bush administration giving in on this fundamentally important question: Who is going to run a postwar Iraq?" If France, Germany and Russia want to repair their frayed ties with America, the British-born Gardiner says that they had better avoid talking another hard-line stance against Washington: "I believe it's really up to Paris, Berlin and Moscow to heal the rift by offering various concessions, and I think the United Nations issue is a very big one. If the European nations are going to insist on European control in a postwar Iraq, they're likely to be rebuffed by the Bush administration. And I think that EU-U.S. relations will deteriorate further if these countries decide to push the issue." But perhaps they won't. Raymond Tanter, a politics professor at the University of Michigan, is an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. Tanter believes a compromise is in the making that may satisfy Washington and Europe. "I think the decision has been made to work out some kind of a deal where you phase in United Nations and NATO and a European Union role, based upon the idea of 'coalition of the willing' primacy in the initial phases." But just what such a compromise would entail is unclear. Some analysts have speculated that Washington, while retaining military and de facto administrative control of Iraq, might agree to let the UN act as a key advisor to an Iraqi interim authority, helping to steer it toward eventual self-government. Yet Paris and Moscow, both permanent members of the Security Council, are also not without their own forms of leverage. Washington says it wants to use Iraqi oil revenues to help rebuild the country, yet UN officials say selling Iraqi oil -- currently run by the UN oil-for-food program -- would be illegal without UN sanction. Indeed, about the only thing clear in the debate at this point is Blair's desire to forge a deal that would placate his EU partners and international skepticism of American motives in Iraq -- and in the process help put U.S.-European relations back on track. And there are already signs that it taking place. German officials, hostile to the idea of using force against Iraq, have recently voiced support of the idea of Iraqi regime change and the hope for a swift coalition victory. Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite widespread anti-American feelings in his country, has also been seen as keen on salvaging his country's burgeoning relationship with Washington. Yesterday, Bush's National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, was in Moscow as both sides sought to pick up the pieces of their frayed relations. Perhaps only France has been alone in failing to make an explicit statement of support for coalition forces, or take clear steps toward a rapprochement with Washington. But if some are optimistic that U.S.-European relations can return to normal, Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation sees the Iraqi conflict as having inflicted a permanent blow to the trans-Atlantic alliance -- at least as it has existed for the last five decades: "I think that in the coming years you're likely to see the United States take a more aggressive role in Europe. I believe that the United States will call, together with Britain, for a new division of Europe centered around those nations that have supported the U.S. over the Iraq question. I believe the United States will start to oppose the concept of the creation of the European super-state, so beloved of French and German planners." Yet with war still raging in Iraq, such speculation may be premature. A spokesman for Blair, speaking after talks with Bush outside Belfast on Monday, told reporters: "On both sides there is caution about overstating the progress that we are making. Neither side underestimates the difficulties still to be faced. It is dangerous to take victory for granted."