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NATO: Trans-Atlantic Crisis Merely One Aspect Of Broadening Rift

NATO is in crisis after France, Germany, and Belgium blocked initial steps to defend Turkey in the event of a U.S.-led war against its neighbor, Iraq. The split in the military alliance is symptomatic of a larger process of estrangement occurring between the trans-Atlantic allies. RFE/RL traces the rifts and where they might lead.

Prague, 11 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Words like "disgraceful" and "mistaken" are painfully direct to the ear of a diplomat. But such straight talk is coming to characterize the growing rift between the United States and some of its traditionally close European partners, notably France, Germany, and Belgium.

Almost as significantly, gaps are widening among the Europeans themselves. And much of this rancorous debate and disagreement is occurring in public.

The main cause of the alienation is Iraq and the question of when, or even whether, to go to war to ensure Baghdad's disarmament.

Much of the sharpest rhetoric is coming from U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has used the words "disgraceful" and "mistaken" to describe allies who are challenging the U.S. view of how things should be done.

The latest wrangle is within the NATO alliance, where France, Germany, and Belgium have blocked military planning for steps to defend Turkey in the event of a U.S.-led war against neighboring Iraq. They say giving such aid to Turkey now would send a signal that war is imminent and that diplomatic efforts have failed.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson calls the disagreement "very serious" but is so far sticking with a diplomatically worded stance. "This is undoubtedly a difficult situation, but allies have had differences before, and they will undoubtedly have more in the future. What matters is to arrive at a consensus, and I'm confident that we will," Robertson said.

U.S. President George W. Bush was more direct, saying he is disappointed with France's role in the NATO dispute. "I don't understand that decision. It affects the alliance in a negative way," Bush said.

The NATO dispute comes in the wake of the strident antiwar stance taken by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, which helped him win re-election last autumn.

In addition, the leaders of nine European countries, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose-Maria Aznar, signed an open letter last month expressing support for the U.S. stand against Iraq. The letter cast doubt on hopes of formulating a common European Union policy on Iraq. There also was no prior consultation with EU partners, and non-signatories had to read about the initiative in the media.

Then came the "Vilnius 10" group of Eastern European countries, which declared their support earlier this month for the U.S. policy on Iraq. This was also issued with minimal outside consultation and has increased the isolation of France and Germany within Europe.

Meanwhile, this past weekend saw a French-German initiative that envisages increasing the number of inspectors to ensure Iraqi disarmament. The plan has annoyed the United States, which learned of it from the press. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell sees it as a distraction. "More inspectors doesn't answer the question," he said. "And what France has to do, and what I think Germany has to do, and all of the members of the Security Council have to do, is read [UN Resolution] 1441 again. This lack of cooperation by Iraq, and a false declaration, and all the other actions they have taken and not taken since the resolution passed, all set the stage for the UN to go into session and find whether or not serious consequences are appropriate at this time," Powell said.

What are the consequences of all these trans-Atlantic and internal European differences? Could they be driving old friends apart permanently?

Analyst Radek Khol of the Czech Institute of International Relations said much depends on the outcome of the Iraq crisis. He said that if the United States goes ahead unilaterally without consultations, misunderstandings could become entrenched. "We may see a fundamental change in the quality of trans-Atlantic relations and worsening of the trans-Atlantic link," Khol said.

If the United States, on the other hand, continues a dialogue with its allies, and is patient, then even if they continue to disagree, the damage may be temporary.

Another independent analyst, Stefan Maarteel of Belgium, sees the U.S.-European links as too solid and important to be disturbed for long. He said that even in mere economic terms, the two sides need each other and that time will heal wounds.

Maarteel sees more damage being done to relations among the Europeans. "This will also create some bitterness against a lot of East European countries that have now been acknowledged as [future] new [European Union] members from 2004 on but at the same time are not showing any will to comply with a European point of view regarding international matters," Maarteel said.

He said that Eastern Europeans are relying on NATO to provide their security rather than the development of a common European policy. Maarteel said that this is a disappointment to some European countries, especially France.