Sarkozy, Merkel Frozen in the Cold War

This is a sad time for France and the rest of Europe. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has decided – without asking the French Parliament and against the majority of the French people – that France must be reintegrated as a military power into NATO’s command. This is not only a coup d’etat, it is also the most reactionary choice you could imagine. In trying to pull it off, Sarkozy is swimming against deep and forceful historical currents in Europe. In doing so, he may be bringing some comfort to the transatlantic elites, but it will be short-lived, because the peoples of Europe will resist the arbitrary will of their governments.

Europeans live with the memory of the 20th century’s two World Wars and many civil wars under the totalitarian rule of communism. It is their longing for peace that made the building of a “European community” and the peaceful end of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe – the two miracles of European history at the end of the last century – possible. Europeans do not want to be involved in any war as long as there is a clear opportunity of solving a conflict through diplomacy. Furthermore, they think that the only realistic attitude in the nuclear age is pro-peace, so they do not mind negotiating for years if it can prevent a war.

This is the reason why our peoples were against the Gulf War in 1991, against the 1999 war in Kosovo, and against invading Iraq six years ago. All opinion polls show a vast majority against sending more European troops to Afghanistan. Our leaders, mainly Sarkozy and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, are developing a somewhat schizophrenic foreign policy: promising to the American government that more troops will be sent to Afghanistan but actually sending only a few thousand soldiers out of fear of opposition from their own people. Our intellectuals – people like Bernard-Henri Lévy – are more and more isolated in trying to mobilize public opinion against the so-called threats of the new century.

Sarkozy was taken aback three weeks ago when an opinion poll showed the French return to NATO’s integrated command was hurting his already low popularity. French people remember with some nostalgia Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who decided in 1966 – against the will of the ruling class but with strong support in Parliament and the population – that France would not remain in NATO’s integrated structures and that NATO’s headquarters had to leave France. De Gaulle was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, and he was convinced, 20 years before it happened, that a disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union was possible. He had made of France a nuclear power not to reinforce the Western side in the Cold War, but to ensure that his country’s voice would be listened to when the time came for negotiation with the Warsaw Pact. France would set an example in the negotiation and be taken seriously when making the case for disarmament, because it would have something to give up in the talks. Leaving NATO’s integrated command was the first step in this policy, and one can say that thanks to de Gaulle, France played a role in the end of the Cold War.

The strength of Europe lies in its diversity. Germans, for instance, are not interested in a Gaullist policy of national independence in the service of peace. They would never accept Germany becoming a nuclear power. They long for total disarmament as soon as possible. The interesting thing, however, is that French and German policies converged in the last decades – as soon as the rulers of both countries were courageous enough to keep Washington at a distance.

In the autumn of 2002, then French president Jacques Chirac decided that the tools of French sovereignty (the country’s authority as a nuclear power and its veto power in the UN Security Council) had to be reasserted in the debate about Iraq. Even if the French diplomatic effort eventually failed, George W. Bush was deprived of the unanimity he had dreamt of. In a parallel development, then German chancellor Gerhard Schröder – eager for reelection, and knowing well Germany’s pacifist majority – argued for Germany staying out of any attack against Iraq.

Both leaders failed to follow through, however. After America’s (apparent) military victory against Saddam Hussein, Chirac and Schröder explained that it was necessary to help the Americans in their democratization campaign in the Middle East – disappointing the folks at home, who had great hopes for their joint peace agenda.

Let us hope that in the future European leaders will follow the example of Chirac and Schröder at their best (in the autumn of 2002), or, better, the example of de Gaulle and Willy Brandt (the great German chancellor of the 1970s and architect of the Helsinki Accords). But for the moment, unfortunately, we are stuck with Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, two mediocre leaders who still think in the categories of the Cold War – and that is a sad state of affairs, indeed.

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Author: Edouard Husson

Edouard Husson is a specialist in 20th-century German and European history at the Sorbonne.