When the Obama administration stamped its foot this time, no one snapped to attention. Rather, Germany and France, meeting with Russia in Deauville, northern France, last week, signaled that they planned to make such three-cornered get-togethers on international foreign policy and security matters routine, and even extend them to inviting other “partners” – pointing, according to diplomats from two countries, to Turkey becoming a future participant.
That can look like an effort to deal with European security concerns in a manner that keeps NATO, at least in part, at a distance. And it could seem a formula making it easier for Russia to play off – absolutely no novelty here – the European allies against the United States, or NATO and the European Union, against one another.
But there’s more detail in the theoretical Euro-Atlantic apostasy department: Add Chancellor Angela Merkel’s proposal, made in June, that the European Union and Russia establish their own Political and Security Committee, and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s intention, enunciated in Deauville, to establish an EU-Russia economic space “with common security concepts.”
Just before the Deauville meeting, Vladimir Chizov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, leapt ahead of the Merkel/Sarkozy plans and told a reporter that Russia now wants a formalised relationship with the existing EU committee on foreign and security policy. “I don’t expect to be sitting at every committee session,” he said, “but there should be some mechanism that would enable us to take joint steps.” As for the Obama administration stamping its foot, what it came down to was a senior US official saying: “Since when, I wonder, is European security no longer an issue of American concern, but something for Europe and Russia to resolve? After being at the center of European security for 70 years, it’s strange to hear that it’s no longer a matter of US concern.”
So, a follow-on burst of European contrition? I asked a German official about it. He spoke of German and French loyalty to NATO. And he said, “I understand there are American suspicions.”
“But,” he added, “the United States must accept that the times are changing. There are examples of it having done this. Why wouldn’t it accept our view in this respect?”
The official did not list them, but there are obvious factors explaining the French and German initiatives. A major one is President Barack Obama’s perceived lack of interest and engagement in Europe. His failure to attend a Berlin ceremony commemorating the end of the Cold War and his cancellation of a meeting involving the EU’s new president has had symbolic weight.
At the same time, the US reset with Russia and the administration’s willingness to treat President Dmitri A. Medvedev as a potential Western-oriented partner has given the Germans and French the sense they were free to act on the basis of their own interpretations of the changes in Moscow.
In this European view, the United States has become significantly dependent on Russia through its maintenance of military supply routes to Afghanistan and its heightened pressure, albeit in wavering measure, on Iran. Because the reset is portrayed by the administration to be a US foreign policy success, criticism from Washington of Russia is at a minimum.
Consider this irony: the more Russia makes entry into the EU’s decision-making processes on security issues a seeming condition for deals the French and/or Germans want (think, for example, of France’s proposed sale to Moscow of Mistral attack vessels), the more the impression takes hold that the administration’s focus for complaint about the situation has been off-loaded onto the Europeans.
Example: Ivo H. Daalder, the United States’ permanent representative at NATO, gave a speech in Paris last week in which he skipped over the Russians’ maneuvering, but described as “baffling” and “very strange” that “NATO doesn’t have a real strategic partnership with the EU.” True enough. On the other hand, Russia is getting a whole series of passes: Ten days ago, when Medvedev offered Hugo Chàvez of Venezuela help to build the country’s first nuclear power station, the State Department expressed concern about technology migrating to “countries that should not have that technology” – but added (bafflingly), that the relationship between Venezuela and Russia (for years Iran’s supplier of nuclear wherewithal) “is not of concern to us.”
Last week, more of the same. When Medvedev bestowed Russia’s highest honors at a Kremlin ceremony on a group of sleeper spies who were expelled from the United States last July, a State Department spokesman turned away a reporter’s question with a “no comment.” Washington chooses not to say anything either about Medvedev’s support, repeated in Deauville, for Sarkozy’s plan, as next year’s president of the G20 consultative grouping, to focus its attention on limiting the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency. In the Deauville aftermath, the Americans have preferred applauding Medvedev’s decision to come to a NATO summit meeting in Lisbon next month, following US congressional elections. He is not expected to announce Russian participation in or endorsement of a US-initiated antimissile shield for Europe – the United States’ notionally organic bond in strengthening the alliance’s trans-Atlantic future – yet the Russian president’s appearance as a guest on NATO’s turf could be seen as an important gesture of real cooperation.
Still, for all the Americans’ concern about Europe dealing with Russia on its own, there hardly has been a corresponding public statement from the administration that’s a call for caution about Moscow’s interest in setting up rivalries between NATO and the EU for David J. Kramer, a former senior State Department official with responsibility for Russia, the new circumstances show “the Russians now have far more leverage in the US relationship than they should.”
It was unexpected in the circumstances, but at a briefing in the run-up to the Deauville meeting the administration liked so little, a French presidential source put a big asterisk – more than Washington does openly – next to France’s desire to create “an anchorage in the West” out of “fragile” indications of change in Russia.
“We do not have assurance there is a permanent strategic turn,” the Elysee Palace said.
John Vinocur writes a regular column in the International Herald Tribune
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