The Trouble With Clinton’s European Trip

Not long ago, a man who is best described as a Republican foreign policy activist paid a visit to Warsaw, where I encountered him late one evening, having a drink with a Polish politician. Although he had other business in Poland, the activist—who made it clear he saw himself as a future assistant secretary of defense, or some such thing, in a future Bush administration—was really in town for another purpose. He had come, he said, to call in his chips. When Poland had applied to join NATO, he, along with others, had lobbied hard for NATO expansion on Capitol Hill. Now he wanted the Poles to return the favor. More specifically, he wanted to the Poles to use their influence to undermine, and eventually destroy, the European Union’s plans to create its own defense force.

For some hours, the activist argued this point. The Polish politician argued back, pointing out that it is hard for the Poles to have much influence in an organization of which they are not members; that American policy has, for some decades now, actively encouraged the Europeans to take care of more security issues on their own; and, more to the point, that the European Union has been talking about European defense for the same number of decades, with no visible result. Why are Americans suddenly taking it seriously? Those arguments didn’t stop the activist, however, who went on and on about the threat to NATO and American influence. At one point he began, rather drunkenly, to rave. “Ungrateful! Ungrateful!” he stood up and shouted at the Pole.

Watching news clips of Clinton meeting European leaders in Lisbon and Berlin this week, with smiles and handshakes all around, it occurred to me that a report of this conversation might make a useful antidote. Smiles and handshakes and words of approval for the European Union are generally what one sees on television when American presidents visit Europe, and this trip is unlikely to be an exception. Among other things, Clinton will actually receive a prize in Berlin, the International Charlemagne Prize, given annually to someone who has worked for European unity. And rightly so: The unification of Europe has indeed progressed rapidly during Clinton’s presidency. The European currency is now a reality, and it has become so with strong official support from the Clinton administration.

Nevertheless, just beneath the surface, there are other currents. The behavior of the raving Republican may have partly been explained by the influence of drink (or I hope, for the sake of any future Bush Defense Department, that his behavior was explained by drink), but his views were no fluke nor were they peculiar to his party. There are other signs of Americans becoming nervous about potential economic and strategic threats posed by a united Europe, and of European suspicion of American intentions in Europe as well. Odd though it may sound, Poland—whose leadership is struggling not to choose sides—happens to be one of the best places to watch the competition grow. Here is where the real trans-Atlantic battles take place—between salesmen of F16s and Eurofighters, for example—and the tactics are getting nastier. Last week’s issue of Poland’s main newsweekly, Wprost, (, for those who read Polish) has reprinted a story which has been making the rounds for some time about a recent meeting among Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, French President Jacques Chirac, and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Supposedly, Chirac asked Geremek if Poland intended to be the “51st state,” while Fischer lectured him on what it means to be a “good European”—and both were annoyed at Poland’s less than enthusiastic attitude to the European Strategic Defense Initiative. Whether those were the exact words spoken doesn’t matter, as other European diplomats have said much the same: If you don’t take our side on this, we won’t let you in.

Out in the open, there is plenty of competition in other spheres, too. Arguments over trade in bananas, beef, and genetically modified food have become increasingly bitter, as Clinton will discover this week; the anti-GM food lobby in Europe in particular is taking on an anti-American tone. A number of European leaders have also made clear their disapproval of American plans for a limited missile defense system. Yet what no one will talk about aloud is what underlies all of these issues: a new unease in the United States about a potentially united Europe becoming a strategic and economic threat, and an old but growing unease in Europe about “too much” American influence. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the “other” superpower started this off, of course, but other factors have contributed since, notably the sudden fact of a European currency, which has sparked an awareness that the so far mythical United States of Europe, and its equally mythical Euro-army, may be closer to reality and more threatening to the status quo than anyone had hitherto suspected. To put it bluntly, as did a NATO diplomat, quoted in the New York Times this week, “In the end, if the European Union takes on its own collective defense, you would have to ask what NATO is for.”

Alas, nothing so exciting as an open argument about “what NATO is for” is likely to take place on this Clinton visit. Changes in trans-Atlantic relations happen at glacial speed: This is one of those disputes that could simmer on for some time without resolving itself, partly because neither partner in this debate is wholly honest about it. The United States continues to wish the Europeans would take on more military responsibilities, while simultaneously fearing a loss of American influence in consequence. Europeans continue to wish the Americans wouldn’t always get their way in trade and strategy, while never quite mustering the political will—or sanctioning the military spending—to become either a full partner to the United States or a full competitor. Instead of actual discussion, bad feelings will continue to feed those other disputes, about trade or missiles or Polish allegiances. And whatever pictures they broadcast from Berlin this week, you can be sure that behind Clinton’s back, nobody is smiling.