By Peter Zeihan
French President Jacques Chirac met with
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris on Sept. 22 before being joined the
next day by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Three years ago, the meeting of
the three powers would have signaled a nightmare scenario for U.S. foreign
How times change.
If anything, the meeting might have
been hostile, as the logic for the trilateral alliance that once existed has
failed. Though the three obviously still have much to discuss, their
relations now are of little more significance than those between nations of
similar standing. The Triumvirate
In the early days of
the Iraq war, a diplomatic alliance spearheaded by Chirac, former German
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Putin regularly met, consulted and spoke out
against the United States' Iraq effort. The three formed a powerful
diplomatic force rooted in friendly personal relationships and a worldview of
a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis that could stand on its own as a global power.
The primary goal of this alliance was to counter and, if possible,
contain American power. Solid geopolitical reasons underpinned this strategy
in Paris, Berlin and Moscow. Paris has long played second fiddle to the
respective global hegemon of the day, whether Hapsburg Spain, Imperial
Britain or Imperial and then Nazi Germany. Currently, that hegemon is the
United States. Thus, France, in particular the France of Charles de Gaulle of
which Chirac sees himself as the custodian, naturally seeks an alliance
capable of countering the global power of the day.
under Schroeder was different. Germany had been divided and occupied by the
Cold War superpowers for two generations, and had the idea beaten into it
that Germany could not have a foreign policy (and certainly not a security
policy) independent from or hostile to Europe. Within that limited envelope,
Germany for the most part chose to be the European Union's yes-man and
But after Germany's 1990 reunification, Berlin began to
think of itself as a country again, and under Schroeder it started developing
a foreign policy within the confines of its internationally imposed envelope.
If Germany would be allowed to think of itself as European, then Germany
should -- in Schroeder's mind -- treat European sovereignty with the same
respect and care a normal state would reserve for its own sovereignty. A
partnership with Chirac's view of Europe -- which envisaged Europe as a
global, if French-led, power -- was a natural fit.
Putin's logic also
was different. During the Cold War, Moscow did everything under the sun to
drive a wedge between Europe and the United States, believing (probably
correctly) that so long as the West remained united, it could wait out and
ultimately overpower the Soviet Union. A divided West, however, would be much
more susceptible to Soviet economic, political and/or military power.
This view re-emerged after the heady days of the early 1990s, when it
(briefly and inaccurately) seemed Washington and Moscow were going to become
best pals. As American power waxed and Russian power waned, Russia under
Putin was forced to confront the uncomfortable revelation that if Russia were
ever going to be secure, it had to have a European friend -- and a powerful
one. The logical choice was Germany, which, in addition to being the closest
major European state, boasted the largest economy, and as Schroeder was
discovering, a rather malleable foreign policy. Schroeder was already cozy
with Chirac, so Putin made the duet a trio.
And thus the
Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis was born. Ungrateful Dissenters,
Meddlesome Americans, French Relics
And it immediately ran into
The first and most critical flaw in the trilateral
relationship was that, though speaking on behalf of France, Germany and
Russia, made for powerful rhetoric, the trio presumed to speak as if it
represented the entire swathe of European and former Soviet states. Bulgaria,
the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the
Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, the
United Kingdom, etc. in fact only have one thing in common, aside from their
location on the European continent: In the past 200 years, all of them have
either been at war with or occupied by France, Germany and Russia. Even for
states such as Norway or Greece, which strongly opposed Washington's Iraq
policies, the idea that Paris, Berlin and Moscow could speak for them without
even consulting them grated. And for those that relied on U.S. military power
to guarantee their independence -- particularly the "new" European states of
Central Europe -- the very thought the triumvirate could speak for them was
perceived as somewhere between horrifying and comic.
European opposition, the Americans did not feel too hot about a grouping that
in theory contained allies that were in fact actively working to undermine
its policies. Luckily for the United States, certain things were fairly
firmly hardwired into the international system, giving Washington a great
deal of inertia that the triumvirate was simply unable to dislodge. The U.S.
dollar's dominance meant that even energy trade between Russia and France was
dollar-denominated. And France and Germany's budget shortfalls meant neither
state was willing to underwrite the expense of setting up an alternative
international system. A triumvirate effort to repeal the European Union's
Chinese arms embargo that would have ended most American-European defense
technology sharing -- something that ensured that other European states would
bring down the idea -- similarly failed to get off the ground. Such a deal
would have put weapons in the hands of the authors of the Tiananmen massacre,
something all German political parties -- even Schroeder's Social Democratic
Party, though not Schroeder himself -- opposed.
In time, however, it
was France that proved to be the alliance's undoing. In May 2004, Europhilic
France -- not the Euroskeptic United Kingdom -- defeated the European
constitution. Chirac's worldview -- and, by extension, Schroeder's and
Putin's as well -- required a Paris able to stand on the European platform
(perhaps sharing that platform with trusted partners that knew enough not to
block the spotlight) and use Europe's strength to influence the globe.
Without the unifying effect of a common constitution, however, the European
Union remains hobbled by a decision-making structure that allows individual
states to veto policies on issues of critical importance, such as how to
label cheese. That national veto also exists for less-interesting topics,
ranging from tax and judicial to foreign and military policies. Suddenly, the
political and economic assumptions upon which the triumvirate was built had
been sabotaged by none other than one of its own members.
decision, the rest of the world has been readjusting. Though Paris, Berlin
and Moscow were certainly at the forefront of the ideal of a world in which
the United States did not dictate policy, they were hardly the only ones with
a stake. Secondary powers the world over -- Brazil, China and India come to
mind -- also fancied the idea of a world in which they might form regional
groupings perhaps able to counter American hegemony.
planners in all of these states have long realized that a multipolar system
is only possible with opposing political and economic poles. That means a
multipolar world would require an economically vibrant, politically distinct
and organizationally coherent Europe. When the constitution died -- and
sporadic European rhetoric to the contrary, the constitution is dead -- that
idea, and thus the multipolar dream, died with it too.
The past 16
months have seen the rest of the world unconsciously coming to grips with
this reality. Some states, such as India, have decided to experiment (albeit
warily) with a sort of alignment with the United States rather than to
attempt to play (nonexistent) poles off each other. Others, such as Brazil,
are viewing their own backyard in a new light, as years of mindless
commitment to an anti-American system rooted in the ideal of multipolarity
has begun to generate undesirable effects (in Brasilia's thinking) in
Venezuela and Bolivia.
And so the flaws in the
Chirac-Schroeder-Putin triumvirate's thinking have led to the triumvirate's
faltering -- as did Schroeder's electoral ejection in September 2005.
His replacement, Angela Merkel, cleaves to a worldview shaped by her
background in the former East Germany. For Merkel, American influence is not
necessarily a negative, and more important, her ideological envelope for
German policy is far wider. Whereas Schroeder operated under the constraints
the West imposed on Germany after World War II -- constraints that nearly all
West Germans consider justified -- Merkel and most East Germans consider
similar restraints imposed by the Soviet Union illegitimate. This freed up
German foreign policy to espouse and advocate German national interests
independent of Europe, empowering Berlin to craft a foreign policy free from
French hip-attachment. For example, within the European Union, Germany has
gone from an engine for greater integration to a force arguing as vehemently
as Denmark and the United Kingdom for the preservation of national vetoes in
key decision-making processes.
And of course, Schroeder's once-sturdy
French conjoined twin, Jacques Chirac, is not as dependable as before.
Chirac's term expires in May 2007, and barring an unexpected resurgence in
his fortunes, the French third of the triumvirate will also vanish.
That is because while Chirac's foreign policy is indeed rooted in
geography, that geography is not of today, but of the de Gaulle era. After
World War II, France found itself in a miniaturized Europe composed of only
France, the Low Countries and occupied Germany and Italy. The United Kingdom
was nursing its wounds and wanted little to do with the mainland, Spain was
languishing in Franco-imposed isolation and the Soviet advance had completely
cut off the eastern half of the Continent. For the first time in more than
1,000 years of French history, no major European powers were scheming,
maneuvering or marching to halt a French rise. France's first move? Begin to
band its near abroad into the European Economic Community, the forerunner of
today's European Union.
But the world of the de Gaulle era no longer
exists. Not only did "Europe" expand to include major European powers such as
Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom, but the Cold War's end introduced a
host of new players that did not see eye to eye with France. Paris could
orchestrate and perhaps even control a Europe of six, but in a Europe of
(going on) 27, the best France can hope for is to avoid being drowned in
euromush. Like the rest of the world's geography, France's geography
But French foreign policy did not change with it.
Future French presidents, whether Nicolas Sarkozy, Segolene Royal or some
other figure, will have one critical characteristic separating them from the
incumbent: They will not worship at the altar of de Gaulle. A leadership
transition will not necessarily make France a fast friend of the United
States, but it will result in a foreign policy more rooted in the geography
of today rather than the geography of yesteryear.
are potentially devastating. De Gaulle's world was one in which the French
could control Europe, and that security encouraged the ambition that created
the European Union. Now, the French no longer believe that; the union is no
longer something to be embraced without hesitation. If France, the architect
of and -- to large degree -- the engine behind European unification, were to
reduce its support for the European project, and if Germany is increasingly
looking out for its own national interests, why shouldn't Paris do the same? Beyond the Triumvirate
Which leaves Russia's Putin all
alone in the night.
Unlike Chirac, Putin's polices are not airy
dreams. Unlike Schroeder's, they are not about muscle flexing. Putin is
quietly terrified his country and culture are in terminal decline; an
alliance with France and Germany was one of the few things that might stave
of that unfortunate fate. As such, Putin was the most desperate of the three
to make the alliance work. But since he also has the most to lose if the
alliance failed, Putin would naturally be the player to move away from the
triumvirate the most quickly when he realized it was doomed.
Part of Russian foreign policy during the triumvirate period was
to treat its two friends as well as possible and to leave some of Russia's
blunt policy tools, such as energy cutoffs and military rumbling, for
countries less willing to want things Moscow's way. But with Schroeder gone
(so much was his commitment to the triumvirate that he now works for Russia's
state-energy firm Gazprom) and Chirac's star fading, Putin has no reason to
cater to French and German interests aside from a desire to be polite.
And Russians have a reputation for brusqueness absent a reason to be
Putin's new program is to look out for Russia's interests
using traditional Russian methods that have not been directed against core
Europe since Soviet times.
The January decision to slash natural gas
exports to Ukraine in the full knowledge that the resultant shortages would
be felt farther west (e.g., in France and Germany) was perhaps the first
large-scale application of this new/old policy. And it demonstrated Russia's
willingness to hurt its former allies in order to press home a critical
point: Our problems are still your problems.
In September, Russian
state-owned Vneshtorgbank purchased 5 percent of the European Aeronautic
Defense and Space Co. (EADS). Shortly thereafter, Kremlin officials leaked
that they intended to acquire a full blocking stake (typically 25 percent
plus one share). EADS, designed in order to empower Europe to compete
head-to-head with U.S. aerospace and defense contractors, has been the baby
of the Franco-German partnership going back a generation. Efforts to keep
that baby in the family know no bounds, and the French in particular are
rumored to be furious at the Russian intrusion. For Putin, French wrath is
immaterial. A Russian grip on EADS not only will secure more Western
technology for Moscow than Putin ever gathered as a KGB operative during the
Cold War; it also will allow Putin legitimately to demand meetings with core
European players -- up to and including the leadership of France, Germany and
Spain -- at a moment's notice.
In September, the Russian Natural
Resources Ministry revoked the license for Royal Dutch/Shell's Sakhalin-2
liquefied natural gas project and has threatened the same for Total's
Kharyaga oil project on the mainland. Technically, both projects are
protected by production-sharing agreements, but in Russia, the rule of law is
hardly firm. The message is clear: Investment and partnership with European
firms is all well and good, but it will occur on Russian terms. These
include, among other things, a European commitment to spread the wealth and
share technology liberally.
The Sept. 23 triumvirate meeting was a
testament to the past power of the threesome -- the key word being past. No
new initiatives were announced, no grand joint statements were released. The
biggest news -- if it can be called that -- was the announcement that the
three powers were forming a study group to examine the issue of Russian
participation in EADS, and that some natural gas from a stalled Russian
offshore project might go to Europe instead of the United States. The French
Foreign Ministry, denied even the mildest assurance from Putin that Total
would not be ejected from its Russian production-sharing agreement, was
reduced to issuing a statement of hope that all would eventually work
Though this will not likely be the last trilateral summit of the
three -- European meetings have a tendency to continue rescheduling
themselves long after the meat of a relationship has rotted -- it clearly
illustrates how the special relationship the powers once enjoyed has been
relegated to history. Exposed to simple geography, rising strategic
competition among the three is nearly a foregone conclusion. France and
Germany will fight over, rather than cooperatively plan, the future of
European unification. Germany and Russia will discover that overlapping
economic interests in Central Europe are less a reason for common ground and
more an issue of winner takes all. France, looking to wring the last bits of
usefulness out of the European Union, will likely back a free trade deal with
Ukraine -- something that will rankle Russian sensitivities.
player missing from this, of course, is the one player who will benefit the
most from the triumvirate's demise: the United States. While Washington would
likely greatly enjoy maneuvering Europe's various powers into more mutually
antagonistic positions, the current administration will not be the one to
take such steps. The Bush administration is simply too occupied with Iraq and
the Iranian complications that go with it to take advantage of anyone. Until
the White House can find more foreign policy bandwidth, it will be sitting
this one out.
Or at least, it will as long as the European powers
allow it to. Traditionally, when European powers maneuver against each other,
they tend to seek the assistance of an outside power, one that can serve as
an ally to help them balance their threats. With Moscow, Paris, and Berlin no
longer seeing eye to eye, one -- and perhaps all -- will ultimately seek out
Washington's helping hand.
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