Diplomatic Diary: How To Beat France

This weekend, NATO's great crisis was averted with a cunning old trick: keep your opponents out of the room. In a deal struck in Brussels, the Americans won NATO support for beefing up Turkey's defenses--including providing NATO surveillance planes, Patriot missiles and chemical and biological units. So the transatlantic alliance survives-and Turkey can plan its defenses before war begins in neighboring Iraq-thanks to a simple sidestep around the French. Of course, there was also snowstorm of political pressure dumped on the heads of the last holdouts--mighty Belgium, notably--and some finessing of the final public statements. Yet the real genius behind the weekend's talks was to move the debate to a venue where France has no seat--the arcanely-titled Defense Planning Committee.

France has excluded itself from the main task of NATO--military defense--since 1966. It's useful to recall those heady days to understand a little better just what's going on with France right now. (It's also useful to remember that period to debunk all the breathless talk about how unprecedented the current transatlantic crisis is.)

President Charles de Gaulle mistrusted NATO from the outset because it left France in a relatively weak position--effectively under the American defense umbrella. So when he returned to power in 1958, he made it clear he was reclaiming French independence with its own nuclear bomb and its withdrawal of French forces from NATO's American-led command. The Soviets were delighted, while the Americans and British were predictably furious (there were even anti-French demonstrations at the time). France never abandoned the alliance, but de Gaulle famously pointed his missiles to all points of the compass, or "tous azimuts".

Around the same time as de Gaulle was encouraging French-speaking Quebec to separate from Canada, Jacques Chirac was starting his political career. It was inside the cabinet of prime minister Georges Pompidou, who was once de Gaulle's chief of staff, that Chirac earned himself the nickname "le bulldozer" for his gentle political touch. Of course since then--and the end of the cold war--France has edged away from pure Gaullism and a little closer towards NATO. Yet Chirac remains the forceful--if unsubtle--leader of a neo-Gaullist party, and those Gaullist traditions are part of his political DNA.

That forcefully independent streak has been center-stage since President George W. Bush took his case against Iraq to the United Nations last September. Blocking, denying and refusing American policies come naturally to any self-respecting Gaullist. Offering alternatives is a little more difficult--especially serious alternatives that might work in practice in Iraq. Yet those tactics have proved hugely successful for the French over the last five months--until now.

What the great NATO compromise shows are three easy steps to halting the French bulldozer in its tracks:

Powell tried to avoid that cowboy routine at the Security Council. But he was also frustrated by his opponents' grandstanding--and the applause they won. When the secretary of State ditched his prepared remarks, he was trying to engage his French and Russian critics head on, his aides said. "Colin Powell knows how to give a speech that gets a lot of applause," said one senior State department official. "It's one thing to go the circus and get cotton candy. But now it's time to bring this one home."

Bringing a second resolution home is likely to involve a combination of all three of the tactics above. Powell was particularly encouraged by German proposals for a series of substantive tests for the Iraqis to prove yet again whether Iraq is serious about disarming. Those tests--coupled with a re-statement of the previous resolution--could still deliver the U.N. stamp of approval for war in Iraq.

But that depends if the White House wants to give Colin Powell the time and space to build support behind the scenes. If the Bush White House chooses instead to play the Gaullists at their own game, the war of words--and the transatlantic dispute--will only get much, much worse.

Join the Discussion