WASHINGTON—French fries are back in, the chill is gone from U.S.-German relations, and jokes about the French have disappeared from conservative talk radio.
France and Germany—the heart of continental Europe—have new leaders in Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel who are receptive to U.S. policies around the world. Sarkozy, the new president of France, has gone a step further, appointing a foreign minister who supported the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush’s strongest ally, Britain’s Tony Blair, recently announced he would step down amid rising opposition. And Bush proposed goals on limiting greenhouse gases, something Europeans had been pressing for years.
It is as if the world—or at least the American-European sphere—has suddenly been turned upside down. When Bush goes to Germany this week for a summit of industrialized nations, he’s likely to find a climate change there as well.
“There are definitely signs of a more cooperative relationship with the White House,” said Sally McNamara, a European expert at the Heritage Foundation who served as chief of staff for a British member of the European Parliament.
Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, the previously leaders of France and Germany, thought Europe needed to stand against Bush. That has changed and the result will be to strengthen Bush, said Charles Kupchan, who directs Europe studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Instead of having his main ally being Tony Blair, who himself was isolated in Europe, Bush will now have a working relationship with the two main capitals on the continent—Paris and Berlin,” he said.
Domestic factors played a dominant role in the last year’s election in Germany and this year’s in France, with voters seeking to get their economies moving again. But voters also reflected a leveling off of the hostility toward Bush and the United States—or at least a recognition that Bush’s influence at home is ebbing.
In France, people see the war in Iraq as winding down and Bush on his way out, said Jean-Robert Leguey-Feilleux, a professor of political science at St. Louis University. “So, starting early on, some kind of rapprochement makes sense.”
While the tone of transatlantic diplomacy has improved, there’s still a wide gap on many issues.
“In terms of substance . . . huge tensions remain between Washington, Paris and Berlin,” said Nile Gardiner of Heritage on global warming, the Iraq war, Iran and Afghanistan.
The verdict isn’t in on Sarkozy, but his domestic views—belief in an entrepreneurial economy and a more dynamic society devoid of some of France’s famous social safety network—jibe more closely with American thought, which by itself could spur closer French-U.S. ties.
The new French minister of foreign and European affairs, Bernard Kouchner, was a member of France’s Socialist Party. He was chosen in large measure, experts say, to signal a willingness to make needed changes in the French bureaucracy, and to show that Sarkozy will reach across party lines to unify the country.
Kouchner, who lost many family members in Nazi concentration camps, applauded the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam. Sarkozy, who has stated a desire for closer ties with Israel, also had dozens of relatives murdered in the Holocaust.
The departure of Tony Blair will not change the “special relationship” between Great Britain and the United States, which is based on a profoundly similar view of the world, but it will lead to less of a “tight bond” between the two countries’ leaders, said Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution.
“The nerves are still a little too raw from the Iraq experience” for as close a tie as Blair and Bond had, according to Lindberg. But the British-U.S. alliance derives not from the decision of given leaders but rather “because we tend to be fairly aligned in our independent assessments,” Lindberg said.
It is unclear how the U.S.-European saga will play out.
Max Bergman of the Center for American Progress said Bush tried and failed to divide Western Europe and Eastern Europe, but “now has a second chance for a more constructive relationship. I think the election creates an opportunity for better relations, but we ourselves have to change.”
Europe’s political developments make that possible, said Julianne Smith, who heads the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “New personalities bring new opportunities,” Smith said, but it will be “a delicate tap dance, because anti-American sentiment remains high in Europe.
McNamara cited Bush’s speech late last week on climate change as a sign of a more cooperative White House. “Bush now thinks he’s got friends he can work with,” he said.
Bush called on 15 major nations to agree by the end of next year on a global target for reducing greenhouse gases. Merkel welcomed the development, calling it a demonstration of “common ground on which to act.”
Any thaw is unlikely to make much difference in terms of European attitudes toward the Iraq war, but could help in bolstering NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Kupchan, of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Leguey-Feilleux said European relations could improve even more if the United States moves more strongly on reducing the violence in Darfur.
Because the United States soon will be focused on its own presidential election, the impact of better ties with Europe wouldn’t be felt immediately, he said, but in the near term U.S.-European cooperation could be important if events occur in areas where both parties have an interest.
An example would be a dramatic turn away from democracy in Russia, “where a strong relationship between the United States and Europe could come in very handy.”