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U.S.: French Officials Decry 'Unilateralism' And 'Simplistic Approach'

Top French officials, including Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, this week bluntly criticized U.S. President George W. Bush's stance on combating terrorism.

Paris, 11 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's remarks yesterday seemed relatively mild after the attacks on U.S. President George W. Bush's stance on terrorism made earlier this week by his foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine.

Addressing a meeting of European parliamentarians in Paris, Jospin said: "One cannot reduce the world's problems to the single dimension of the fight against terrorism, however important that may be. Nor can one rely on solving them through the dominance of military means."

Jospin than called on the United States to resist what he called the "strong temptations of unilateralism" and join France and other nations in multilateral action. Without the United States, he said, a new international "equilibrium" would be more difficult to attain.

On 6 February, Vedrine was a good deal more outspoken during a long interview with French radio (France-Inter). Vedrine called Bush's stance on terrorism "simplistic." He said Bush's approach threatens "to reduce all the world's problems to the struggle against terrorism."

Vedrine added: "That is simply not serious thinking. We cannot accept that idea." He said European nations should not be afraid of speaking out. "If we don't agree with American policy, we must say so."

Vedrine also accused the United States of practicing what he called "utilitarian unilateralism." He defined that term as a "unilateral approach, without consulting allies, based on [Washington's] interpretation and its interests. 'Utilitarian' because [the United States] might have need of one country or another at any given moment [but still refuses] to engage in international or multilateral negotiations that might encroach on its sovereignty or freedom of action."

A week ago in New York, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, Vedrine met for two hours with his U.S. counterpart, Colin Powell. Their meeting came a few days after Bush coined the term "axis of evil" to describe the three nations -- Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- whose weapons programs Bush said pose a threat to the United States and other countries. Bush implied the United States might take pre-emptive action against one or more of the three so-called "rogue" nations.

Some European Union nations, notably Germany and Spain, quickly distanced themselves from Bush's approach. German Defense Minister Rudolph Sharping said last weekend that he favors a political rather than a military strategy in dealing with Iraq. At the same time, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said that the 15-nation group would seek what he called maximum cooperation with Iran on trade, the fight against terrorism, and human rights.

But Vedrine's broadside, although not the first one he has launched at Washington, was far and away the harshest criticism of Bush's "axis of evil" speech by a senior EU official.

Our correspondent spoke with Jacques Beltran, an analyst of U.S. affairs at the French Foreign Affairs Institute in Paris (IFRI), about Vedrine's criticisms. He asked him whether they constituted the start of a new open quarrel between France and the United States of the sort that has marked much of the past half-century.

"I don't think [they represent] a new Franco-American disagreement. What has taken place is simply that Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine has spoken up clearly and, at the same time on the American side, President George Bush and other officials have also expressed their views clearly. This divergence in views, which today has emerged unmistakably into the open, is in fact rather an old one. It is based on two factors: The first is the classic opposition between multilateralism and unilateralism. The second is the opposition in France, and by many elsewhere in the EU, to the American doctrine of 'rogue states.' That notion groups together a number of states and seeks to treat them in the same manner."

U.S. commentator Robert Levine, writing in the "International Herald Tribune" on 8 February points to the inequity between the two nations as the core of the Franco-American dispute. "[The] United States and France do have different national interests, and on those interests the United States will continue to act as a unilateral superpower. It will because it can. The stark fact is that America is a lot more important and visible to America than France is to America."

French analyst Beltran agrees with that view. But he says: "I think the Europeans can allow themselves to criticize the American position and American unilateralism, but in so doing they must be constructive and make [constructive] proposals. But if you consider the conflict in the Middle East, their attitude toward Iraq, et cetera, in the end, the Europeans are [clearly] in retreat -- something I personally regret."

U.S. Secretary of State Powell says the United States does consult with its allies. A few hours after Vedrine criticized what he calls U.S. failures to act multilaterally, Powell told the U.S. House International Relations Committee that "we believe in multilateralism."

But he added that, "when the multinational community does not agree with us," the U.S. would not "shrink from doing that which is right, which is in our interest, even if some of our friends disagree with us."