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Adieu to U.S. Unilateralism?

Has the transatlantic alliance finally reemerged after two years of tension?

March 5, 2004

Has the transatlantic alliance finally reemerged after two years of tension?

The phone lines between officials in Washington and Paris are busy with cooperative talks and plans for a United Nations-backed peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

Meanwhile on another floor of the White House, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is being hailed by President George Bush as “a person that can make me laugh, a person who is easy to be with. And a person who is easy to be with means I’ve got a comfortable relationship with him.”

We have all come a long way since those bitter and heated exchanges over Iraq at the United Nations a year ago, when the rows with the French and Germans threatened to tear the Atlantic alliance apart.

President Bush even used the phrase his father used when dealing with a previous German Chancellor — that Washington and Berlin were “partners in leadership.”

It’s not just that everybody wants to be friends again, but that they are acting like allies again.

The French and Germans have troops (and casualties) in Afghanistan, and are planning to send their Eurocorps to Kabul later this year. The French are proposing sending troops and their useful paramilitary gendarmes to Haiti alongside Americans.

The French and Germans and the European Union partners are taking over peacekeeping responsibilities in Bosnia at the end of this year, and now they are all talking about NATO taking over responsibility for the Polish sector of southern Iraq.

At the same time, Richard Perle has resigned from the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, saying that his hard-line and outspoken views might not be helpful to the President during an election year.

“I did not want to put them in a position that they felt they had to respond to the things I said by virtue of my membership on the Defense Policy Board,” Mr. Perle explained.

This takes one of the toughest-minded of the neoconservatives, and one of the most outspoken in his criticism of the French and German allies, out of the Bush Administration’s policy loop.

And it spares the Bush campaign the embarrassment of explaining away the policies advocated in Mr. Perle’s new book, "An End To Evil: How to win the war on terror."

The book advocates toppling the government of Iran, ending U.S. support of a Palestinian state, bringing North Korea to heel through a blockade, breaking ties with the Saudis and getting very tough with Syria and China — while telling the wimpy Europeans to like it or lump it.

Mr. Perle’s book is co-authored with David Frum, the former White House speechwriter who is credited with the phrase Bush will never quite live down about the “axis of evil” — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — in his State of the Union address in January 2002.

At the time, the speech sounded like an agenda for serial regime change, by military action if need be.

It was also the first clarion call of what became known as the Bush Administration’s unilateralism — its readiness to go it alone in defending U.S. interests without a mandate from the United Nations and without allies.

Sometime between that speech and the bloody and confused aftermath of the fall of Iraq in the summer of 2003, that hard-nosed doctrine of muscular U.S. unilateralism was rethought.

The first nation of the axis of evil had proved a tougher proposition than first thought, and the diplomatic and domestic political price of going it alone was deemed too high.

So now we see nations 2 and 3 of the axis of evil getting very different treatment.

The control of Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been entrusted to the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany.

Late last year, in an unprecedented diplomatic triumvirate, they persuaded Iran to bring its nuclear program back within the control regime of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Authority.

And North Korea’s nuclear menace is being managed by an even more multilateral group that includes China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

In short, Mr. Bush’s unilateralism is dead. The neo-cons are out of favor. The Germans are back in the White House. The French are worthy allies. The United Nations are the first port of call in a crisis, whether for Iran or Haiti.

Maybe it took drooping opinion polls and an election campaign, but the Bush Administration is coming back into the world. And the French and Germans are being smart enough to say "Welcome" — instead of "We told you so."