Bismarck must be spinning in his grave at Germany’s blunder

By Josef Joffe

How the once-mighty have stumbled! In the old days (not that they were such good days), the Germans simply used to overrun Belgium – and triggered two world wars in the process. Now they hide behind this tiny country in order to kick Uncle Sam in the shin.

Though Berlin did not formally veto Nato planning for the defence of Turkey in case of an Iraqi war, German Nato diplomats earlier this week egged on France and Belgium to say “Non”.

Making a mouse roar, to do in Nato? This is a new one in the annals of diplomacy, and it adds inanity to injury. Or, to quote the French master cynic Talleyrand, who served both Napoleon and the restored monarchy: “This was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.” The crime, though not necessarily with malice aforethought, is a blow that could yet do for the world’s most successful and enduring alliance of all time.

The message of the veto by Belgium et al is this: the alliance is now a la carte; it is up to us to decide whether a threatened member shall be protected or not. Indeed, we will veto even the planning for such a contingency under Article 4. This clause of the Nato treaty allows a member state to ask for consultations on what the alliance might do if an impending threat actually does materialise.

Not such a big thing, you might think – all we’re talking about is the little matter of dispatching a handful of Patriot missiles to deter Saddam Hussein from attacking Turkey. Such a move would prejudice nothing; it would merely send a sorely needed message to Baghdad to the effect: “Don’t even go there.”

The implied signal from Brussels now reads: the coalition that so effectively deterred a Soviet attack for 50 years has now become a contingency; we may help each other, and then we may not because we have other fish to fry.

As of this week, all 19 members of the alliance will begin to reshape their calculations. In the next crunch, it will not be “all for one, and one for all”, but “each for himself”. This will be the end of the alliance as we knew it.

If this is the crime, what is the mistake?

The Germans and – much more subtly – the French have been desperately trying to stop America’s and Britain’s war against Saddam. Their reasons may be sound or even honourable, but the effect is the opposite of intelligent statecraft.

Both France and Germany subscribe to the goal, enshrined in 17 UN resolutions, of disarming Saddam. Yet how could the rupture of a common Western front serve this purpose? Indeed, war avoidance, which Paris and Berlin so desperately seek, will be served far better by increasing, not by reducing, the pressure on Saddam.

This duo, plus Belgium, have arrayed themselves on the side of Saddam. They give him hope against hope – that, somehow, he will be able to escape from the UN siege with his capacity for making weapons of mass destruction essentially untouched. Not a smart move.

Such are the insights that even the most basic course in diplomacy teaches to young foreign ministry acolytes, but then, neither Bismarck nor Talleyrand is running foreign policy in Berlin or Paris these days. These wily manipulators of men and nations would have asked a more fundamental question: “Are we willing to sacrifice Nato to our attempt to tie down the ‘hyperpower’?”

On closer inspection, they would have answered “Nein” and “Non”. They would have reasoned thus. First, if we want to take on Mr Big in earnest, we had better make sure that we can stay in the game after the first few moves. Since we don’t have the chips, we must add to our smallish pile by recruiting reliable allies. Belgium? Scratch that, for we need heavier munitions than those pricey chocolates concocted by Neuhaus and Godiva. Let’s see, is there anybody else?

Alas, there isn’t. As the open letter of the “Wall Street Eight” and the declaration of the “Vilnius 10” showed, the rest of Europe is not amused. The east Europeans obviously march to a different tune. The lyrics read: “The closer we are geographically to Russia, the closer we must be politically to America.” For only the “hyperpower” can reliably protect us against a resurgent Russia.

But there is more. Those east Europeans have only recently recouped their sovereignty, and so they are far less willing than Germany or Belgium to yield it to Brussels. And they are even less willing to yield it to a Franco-German directoire.

Better to huddle under the umbrella of a remote superpower than to submit to nearby medium powers that are much better placed to meddle in the affairs of the smaller European countries. Indeed, so their reasoning goes, we want Mr Big in the game to give us some leverage against the “Old Europe”. Interestingly enough, these motives have also shaped the calculations of Spain and Italy.

Which leaves Russia. Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder have demonstratively sidled up to Vladimir Putin. All three have proclaimed that they “favour the continuation of the inspections”, which is a polite way of saying no to the war.

Let the inspections drag on into the summer, and the window for war closes. For it is hard to see how those Anglo-American forces would stay in place until next January and beyond. Worse, let those troops go, and Saddam can defy the UN for ever.

This is a gamble the German chancellor may well lose. Unlike Mr Schröder, Mr Chirac and Mr Putin have not tied their hands; indeed, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is well on its way toward the Middle East. In the end, neither France nor Russia will risk their American connection, let alone a seat at the table where the post-war fate of Iraq will be thrashed out.

Germany as the odd man out? This must be the nightmare now wafting through the chancellor’s office. Can it be banished? Yes, if coldly calculated interest prevails. It whispers ever so loudly: “Don’t mess with Mr Big unless the stronger battalions are on your side.” Belgium is not enough.

The author is editor of the German weekly Die Zeit

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