U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld touched a nerve in Europe this week, dividing the continent into what he called "old Europe" and "new Europe." Reaction from France and Germany -- which Rumsfeld put squarely in the "old" category -- was swift and harsh. But the U.S. official's underlying point cannot be denied. On Iraq, divisions in Europe appear to run deep, with the main fault line falling between NATO's "older" European members and its new ones.
Prague, 24 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld this week put his finger on an uncomfortable division in Europe with his comment that the continent could be broken into "old" and "new" categories -- at least with respect to its thinking on Iraq.
Rumsfeld, responding to a reporter's question on 22 January about "European" opposition to the use of force in Iraq, said the reporter meant France and Germany, which were part of "old" Europe. He contrasted them with the vitality of the "new" Europe -- made up in large part of NATO's new, formerly communist, inductees.
"You're thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't. I think that's 'old Europe.' If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the East. And there are a lot of new members. And if you just take the list of all the members of NATO and all of those who have been invited in recently -- what is it, 26, something like that? [But] you're right. Germany has been a problem, and France has been a problem."
Rumsfeld continued, "You look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe. They're not with France and Germany [regarding Iraq], they're with the United States."
The reaction from Germany and France -- who oppose what they see as an overly hasty call to arms by the United States -- was swift and harsh. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer implied that Rumsfeld's comments were irrational.
"Mr. Rumsfeld has described the Europeans as 'old.' Indeed, they are -- as far as the creation of a state or culture is concerned, [they are] older than the United States. I don't want to comment any further. But one should deal with each other rationally and with common sense."
A French government spokesman, Jean-Francois Cope, noted pointedly that being old also meant being wise. He said: "An 'old' continent -- a continent somewhat ancient in its historical, cultural, political, economic traditions -- can sometimes be infused with a certain wisdom, and wisdom can sometimes make for good advice."
But the underlying point of Rumsfeld's comment -- however blunt -- cannot be denied. Certainly, at least in their public comments, NATO's "new" European members are more supportive of the U.S. position on Iraq than its "older" ones.
One example is Hungary, which -- along with Poland and the Czech Republic -- joined NATO in 1999. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry this week said Hungary would prefer to have the backing of the UN Security Council for any military action in Iraq, but -- like the U.S. -- it would be willing to support war without an additional council resolution. Foreign Ministry spokesman Tomas Toth tells RFE/RL, "Number one, what we want is a peaceful solution. Number two, if a military solution is needed then [this should be pursued] with a Security Council mandate, and if all this is not possible, then, a military solution without the Security Council mandate is [still better than to wait] and see what Saddam Hussein is going to do with his weapons [of mass destruction]."
Poland and the Czech Republic in recent days have also indicated at least some support for the U.S. position. Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz on 21 January said his country would back U.S. action in Iraq "without the agreement of the United Nations." The Czech Republic has stationed a chemical- and biological-warfare unit in Kuwait, although it says it will not deploy the unit in Iraq without a second UN resolution.
None of the seven formerly communist countries invited last year to join the alliance has come out against the U.S. position, and one of the seven -- Lithuania -- confirmed this week it will offer some limited assistance to the U.S. if necessary.
This contrasts sharply with some of NATO's older European members. Germany, from the start, has opposed the use of force in Iraq, and France hinted at the Security Council that it could use its veto to block a second resolution mandating an armed attack. This week, France and Germany, along with fellow "old" NATO members Belgium and Luxembourg, voted to block a U.S. request for limited military assistance.
The "old" and "new" distinction has its limits. The United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain, all older NATO members, have said they back the U.S. position.
It's not clear how far Rumsfeld's comments represent official U.S. thinking on Europe, although they clearly echo remarks by President George W. Bush at last year's NATO summit in Prague and immediately afterward. It was in Prague that the military alliance agreed to invite the seven new members: Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
Speaking in Vilnius the day after the summit, Bush praised the Lithuanians -- and, by extension, all of the citizens of NATO's former communist states -- by saying that life under a dictatorship had made them more appreciative of human freedom.
"You have known cruel oppression, and you withstood it. You were held captive by an empire and you outlived it. And because you have paid its cost, you know the value of human freedom."
It's also not clear yet how far NATO's new members can go toward pleasing the U.S. without jeopardizing their -- arguably greater -- interests in joining the European Union, where France and Germany hold most of the cards and where being part of the "old" Europe is vastly preferable to being part of the "new."
Anthony Galabov, from the Institute for Sociology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, touched on this concern in comments to RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
"On one hand, Bulgaria explicitly has to continue to support the necessity of united action sanctioned by the UN against Iraq. At the same time, Bulgaria should demonstrate firmly that it is a part of that Europe called the 'old' one. Anything else would put in doubt whether Bulgaria can sustain its efforts at European integration."
Five of NATO's seven new members are hoping to join the EU in 2004. Bulgaria and Romania hope to get in by 2007.
(RFE/RL's Eugen Tomiuc, Diana Ivanova, and Tanya Kancheva contributed to this report.)