From Strategic Forecasting Inc:
The Triple Alliance's Limits
By Peter Zeihan
French President Jacques Chirac met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris on Sept. 22 before being joined the next day by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Three years ago, the meeting of the three powers would have signaled a nightmare scenario for U.S. foreign policy.
How times change.
If anything, the meeting might have been hostile, as the logic for the trilateral alliance that once existed has failed. Though the three obviously still have much to discuss, their relations now are of little more significance than those between nations of similar standing.
In the early days of the Iraq war, a diplomatic alliance spearheaded by Chirac, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Putin regularly met, consulted and spoke out against the United States' Iraq effort. The three formed a powerful diplomatic force rooted in friendly personal relationships and a worldview of a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis that could stand on its own as a global power. The primary goal of this alliance was to counter and, if possible, contain American power. Solid geopolitical reasons underpinned this strategy in Paris, Berlin and Moscow. Paris has long played second fiddle to the respective global hegemon of the day, whether Hapsburg Spain, Imperial Britain or Imperial and then Nazi Germany. Currently, that hegemon is the United States. Thus, France, in particular the France of Charles de Gaulle of which Chirac sees himself as the custodian, naturally seeks an alliance capable of countering the global power of the day.
Germany's logic under Schroeder was different. Germany had been divided and occupied by the Cold War superpowers for two generations, and had the idea beaten into it that Germany could not have a foreign policy (and certainly not a security policy) independent from or hostile to Europe. Within that limited envelope, Germany for the most part chose to be the European Union's yes-man and pocketbook.
But after Germany's 1990 reunification, Berlin began to think of itself as a country again, and under Schroeder it started developing a foreign policy within the confines of its internationally imposed envelope. If Germany would be allowed to think of itself as European, then Germany should -- in Schroeder's mind -- treat European sovereignty with the same respect and care a normal state would reserve for its own sovereignty. A partnership with Chirac's view of Europe -- which envisaged Europe as a global, if French-led, power -- was a natural fit.
Putin's logic also was different. During the Cold War, Moscow did everything under the sun to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States, believing (probably correctly) that so long as the West remained united, it could wait out and ultimately overpower the Soviet Union. A divided West, however, would be much more susceptible to Soviet economic, political and/or military power. This view re-emerged after the heady days of the early 1990s, when it (briefly and inaccurately) seemed Washington and Moscow were going to become best pals. As American power waxed and Russian power waned, Russia under Putin was forced to confront the uncomfortable revelation that if Russia were ever going to be secure, it had to have a European friend -- and a powerful one. The logical choice was Germany, which, in addition to being the closest major European state, boasted the largest economy, and as Schroeder was discovering, a rather malleable foreign policy. Schroeder was already cozy with Chirac, so Putin made the duet a trio.
And thus the Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis was born.
Ungrateful Dissenters, Meddlesome Americans, French Relics
And it immediately ran into trouble. The first and most critical flaw in the trilateral relationship was that, though speaking on behalf of France, Germany and Russia, made for powerful rhetoric, the trio presumed to speak as if it represented the entire swathe of European and former Soviet states. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, etc. in fact only have one thing in common, aside from their location on the European continent: In the past 200 years, all of them have either been at war with or occupied by France, Germany and Russia. Even for states such as Norway or Greece, which strongly opposed Washington's Iraq policies, the idea that Paris, Berlin and Moscow could speak for them without even consulting them grated. And for those that relied on U.S. military power to guarantee their independence -- particularly the "new" European states of Central Europe -- the very thought the triumvirate could speak for them was perceived as somewhere between horrifying and comic.
Beyond internal European opposition, the Americans did not feel too hot about a grouping that in theory contained allies that were in fact actively working to undermine its policies. Luckily for the United States, certain things were fairly firmly hardwired into the international system, giving Washington a great deal of inertia that the triumvirate was simply unable to dislodge. The U.S. dollar's dominance meant that even energy trade between Russia and France was dollar-denominated. And France and Germany's budget shortfalls meant neither state was willing to underwrite the expense of setting up an alternative international system. A triumvirate effort to repeal the European Union's Chinese arms embargo that would have ended most American-European defense technology sharing -- something that ensured that other European states would bring down the idea -- similarly failed to get off the ground. Such a deal would have put weapons in the hands of the authors of the Tiananmen massacre, something all German political parties -- even Schroeder's Social Democratic Party, though not Schroeder himself -- opposed.
In time, however, it was France that proved to be the alliance's undoing. In May 2004, Europhilic France -- not the Euroskeptic United Kingdom -- defeated the European constitution. Chirac's worldview -- and, by extension, Schroeder's and Putin's as well -- required a Paris able to stand on the European platform (perhaps sharing that platform with trusted partners that knew enough not to block the spotlight) and use Europe's strength to influence the globe.
Without the unifying effect of a common constitution, however, the European Union remains hobbled by a decision-making structure that allows individual states to veto policies on issues of critical importance, such as how to label cheese. That national veto also exists for less-interesting topics, ranging from tax and judicial to foreign and military policies. Suddenly, the political and economic assumptions upon which the triumvirate was built had been sabotaged by none other than one of its own members.
Since that decision, the rest of the world has been readjusting. Though Paris, Berlin and Moscow were certainly at the forefront of the ideal of a world in which the United States did not dictate policy, they were hardly the only ones with a stake. Secondary powers the world over -- Brazil, China and India come to mind -- also fancied the idea of a world in which they might form regional groupings perhaps able to counter American hegemony. But strategic planners in all of these states have long realized that a multipolar system is only possible with opposing political and economic poles. That means a multipolar world would require an economically vibrant, politically distinct and organizationally coherent Europe. When the constitution died -- and sporadic European rhetoric to the contrary, the constitution is dead -- that idea, and thus the multipolar dream, died with it too. The past 16 months have seen the rest of the world unconsciously coming to grips with this reality.
Some states, such as India, have decided to experiment (albeit warily) with a sort of alignment with the United States rather than to attempt to play (nonexistent) poles off each other. Others, such as Brazil, are viewing their own backyard in a new light, as years of mindless commitment to an anti-American system rooted in the ideal of multipolarity has begun to generate undesirable effects (in Brasilia's thinking) in Venezuela and Bolivia. And so the flaws in the Chirac-Schroeder-Putin triumvirate's thinking have led to the triumvirate's faltering -- as did Schroeder's electoral ejection in September 2005.
His replacement, Angela Merkel, cleaves to a worldview shaped by her background in the former East Germany. For Merkel, American influence is not necessarily a negative, and more important, her ideological envelope for German policy is far wider. Whereas Schroeder operated under the constraints the West imposed on Germany after World War II -- constraints that nearly all West Germans consider justified -- Merkel and most East Germans consider similar restraints imposed by the Soviet Union illegitimate. This freed up German foreign policy to espouse and advocate German national interests independent of Europe, empowering Berlin to craft a foreign policy free from French hip-attachment. For example, within the European Union, Germany has gone from an engine for greater integration to a force arguing as vehemently as Denmark and the United Kingdom for the preservation of national vetoes in key decision-making processes.
And of course, Schroeder's once-sturdy French conjoined twin, Jacques Chirac, is not as dependable as before. Chirac's term expires in May 2007, and barring an unexpected resurgence in his fortunes, the French third of the triumvirate will also vanish. That is because while Chirac's foreign policy is indeed rooted in geography, that geography is not of today, but of the de Gaulle era. After World War II, France found itself in a miniaturized Europe composed of only France, the Low Countries and occupied Germany and Italy. The United Kingdom was nursing its wounds and wanted little to do with the mainland, Spain was languishing in Franco-imposed isolation and the Soviet advance had completely cut off the eastern half of the Continent. For the first time in more than 1,000 years of French history, no major European powers were scheming, maneuvering or marching to halt a French rise.
France's first move? Begin to band its near abroad into the European Economic Community, the forerunner of today's European Union.
But the world of the de Gaulle era no longer exists. Not only did "Europe" expand to include major European powers such as Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom, but the Cold War's end introduced a host of new players that did not see eye to eye with France. Paris could orchestrate and perhaps even control a Europe of six, but in a Europe of (going on) 27, the best France can hope for is to avoid being drowned in euromush. Like the rest of the world's geography, France's geography changed.
But French foreign policy did not change with it.Future French presidents, whether Nicolas Sarkozy, Segolene Royal or some other figure, will have one critical characteristic separating them from the incumbent: They will not worship at the altar of de Gaulle. A leadership transition will not necessarily make France a fast friend of the United States, but it will result in a foreign policy more rooted in the geography of today rather than the geography of yesteryear.The implications are potentially devastating. De Gaulle's world was one in which the French could control Europe, and that security encouraged the ambition that created the European Union. Now, the French no longer believe that; the union is no longer something to be embraced without hesitation.
If France, the architect of and -- to large degree -- the engine behind European unification, were to reduce its support for the European project, and if Germany is increasingly looking out for its own national interests, why shouldn't Paris do the same?
Beyond the Triumvirate
Which leaves Russia's Putin all alone in the night.Unlike Chirac, Putin's polices are not airy dreams. Unlike Schroeder's, they are not about muscle flexing. Putin is quietly terrified his country and culture are in terminal decline; an alliance with France and Germany was one of the few things that might stave of that unfortunate fate. As such, Putin was the most desperate of the three to make the alliance work. But since he also has the most to lose if the alliance failed, Putin would naturally be the player to move away from the triumvirate the most quickly when he realized it was doomed.
And he has.
Part of Russian foreign policy during the triumvirate period was to treat its two friends as well as possible and to leave some of Russia's blunt policy tools, such as energy cutoffs and military rumbling, for countries less willing to want things Moscow's way. But with Schroeder gone (so much was his commitment to the triumvirate that he now works for Russia's state-energy firm Gazprom) and Chirac's star fading, Putin has no reason to cater to French and German interests aside from a desire to be polite.
And Russians have a reputation for brusqueness absent a reason to be polite.
Putin's new program is to look out for Russia's interests using traditional Russian methods that have not been directed against core Europe since Soviet times.
The January decision to slash natural gas exports to Ukraine in the full knowledge that the resultant shortages would be felt farther west (e.g., in France and Germany) was perhaps the first large-scale application of this new/old policy. And it demonstrated Russia's willingness to hurt its former allies in order to press home a critical point: Our problems are still your problems. In September, Russian state-owned Vneshtorgbank purchased 5 percent of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS). Shortly thereafter, Kremlin officials leaked that they intended to acquire a full blocking stake (typically 25 percent plus one share).
EADS, designed in order to empower Europe to compete head-to-head with U.S. aerospace and defense contractors, has been the baby of the Franco-German partnership going back a generation. Efforts to keep that baby in the family know no bounds, and the French in particular are rumored to be furious at the Russian intrusion. For Putin, French wrath is immaterial. A Russian grip on EADS not only will secure more Western technology for Moscow than Putin ever gathered as a KGB operative during the Cold War; it also will allow Putin legitimately to demand meetings with core European players -- up to and including the leadership of France, Germany and Spain -- at a moment's notice.
In September, the Russian Natural Resources Ministry revoked the license for Royal Dutch/Shell's Sakhalin-2 liquefied natural gas project and has threatened the same for Total's Kharyaga oil project on the mainland. Technically, both projects are protected by production-sharing agreements, but in Russia, the rule of law is hardly firm. The message is clear: Investment and partnership with European firms is all well and good, but it will occur on Russian terms. These include, among other things, a European commitment to spread the wealth and share technology liberally.
The Sept. 23 triumvirate meeting was a testament to the past power of the threesome -- the key word being past. No new initiatives were announced, no grand joint statements were released. The biggest news -- if it can be called that -- was the announcement that the three powers were forming a study group to examine the issue of Russian participation in EADS, and that some natural gas from a stalled Russian offshore project might go to Europe instead of the United States. The French Foreign Ministry, denied even the mildest assurance from Putin that Total would not be ejected from its Russian production-sharing agreement, was reduced to issuing a statement of hope that all would eventually work out.
Though this will not likely be the last trilateral summit of the three -- European meetings have a tendency to continue rescheduling themselves long after the meat of a relationship has rotted -- it clearly illustrates how the special relationship the powers once enjoyed has been relegated to history. Exposed to simple geography, rising strategic competition among the three is nearly a foregone conclusion. France and Germany will fight over, rather than cooperatively plan, the future of European unification. Germany and Russia will discover that overlapping economic interests in Central Europe are less a reason for common ground and more an issue of winner takes all. France, looking to wring the last bits of usefulness out of the European Union, will likely back a free trade deal with Ukraine -- something that will rankle Russian sensitivities.
The one player missing from this, of course, is the one player who will benefit the most from the triumvirate's demise: the United States. While Washington would likely greatly enjoy maneuvering Europe's various powers into more mutually antagonistic positions, the current administration will not be the one to take such steps. The Bush administration is simply too occupied with Iraq and the Iranian complications that go with it to take advantage of anyone. Until the White House can find more foreign policy bandwidth, it will be sitting this one out.Or at least, it will as long as the European powers allow it to. Traditionally, when European powers maneuver against each other, they tend to seek the assistance of an outside power, one that can serve as an ally to help them balance their threats. With Moscow, Paris, and Berlin no longer seeing eye to eye, one -- and perhaps all -- will ultimately seek out Washington's helping hand.
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