Sarkozy’s Grand Bargain

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 02/12/07):

Think of it always. Speak of it never.

Conceived for very different circumstances, León Gambetta’s old formula about Alsace-Lorraine serves as a guide today for foreign powers watching the Bush administration fade fitfully from office.

Jerusalem, Moscow, Paris, Pyongyang and other capitals are continually calculating whether to make deals and accommodations with Washington now or wait out this administration and try their luck with a new president. The notion that timing is everything has become the silent driving force of international power politics as Jan. 20, 2009, approaches.

George W. Bush’s looming exit helped prompt Israelis and Arabs to sit down together in Annapolis last week and see what they could extract from each other and from Washington. The modest results — primarily a temporary weaning of Syria away from Iran’s erase-Israel bluster and the Saudis turning up at all — will keep hopes, and bargaining, alive for a while longer.

Other examples: North Korea made its choice last summer to stick with the old by starting to make deals with the United States within the six-party talks on its nuclear weapons. The U.N. calendar and Bush’s dwindling time push Iraq’s leaders to negotiate far-reaching status-of-forces and bases agreements with Bush & Co. before the next U.S. election. Russia could yet try for a package deal with Bush concerning arms control in Europe, Kosovo independence and Iran.

And France has launched an ambitious effort to split the difference by reaching a final agreement with Bush on terms for rejoining NATO’s military command — and then have the deal formally adopted by the alliance shortly after Bush’s successor has been inaugurated.

That would be accomplished at a spectacular 60th-anniversary NATO summit being planned for the spring of 2009. The meeting is to be hosted jointly by Germany and France, according to diplomats involved in the previously undisclosed planning. It would provide a powerful symbol of the alliance’s contribution to the durable peace that has been created between two nations that sparked two world wars in the 20th century.

The summit celebrations are to take place partly in Alsace-Lorraine — the subject of Gambetta’s injunction to the French to think always of the province lost to the Germans in 1870 while avoiding inflaming passions with nationalist rhetoric. Holding these meetings on French soil buries the hatchet not only with the Germans but also with the Americans over Charles de Gaulle’s withdrawal from and expulsion of NATO’s military headquarters in 1967.

This effort deserves to fare better than a 1996 attempt by France to negotiate its way back into the alliance’s military structure. That failed when Bill Clinton balked at reorganizing the alliance’s chain of command, as demanded by Paris. There is every chance, and every reason, to avoid such a failure this time.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has made full integration into NATO part of a far-reaching reform of France’s armed forces to be unveiled next March in a rare French defense “white paper.” He will use the overhaul of his military to push for a strategic reorientation of the European Union’s military capabilities and of the defense relationship between Europe and Washington. For Sarkozy, the Strasbourg-Cologne summit is about the future, not the past.

During a visit to Washington last month, Sarkozy suggested to American officials that he has already made the decision to rejoin NATO — if the United States accepts a greater role for Europe in decision making for transatlantic defense. French negotiating demands are vague at this point, but they do not appear to cross U.S. “red lines” ruling out costly duplication of effort by NATO and E.U. defense headquarters.

Sarkozy’s fresh thinking on military matters should give NATO badly needed new direction and focus at a crucial moment when the alliance is moving from being a European territorial defense organization to one that deals with global security challenges concentrated in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Balkans and Africa.

Since the disappearance of the threat that led to NATO’s creation — a massive Soviet land invasion of Western Europe — the organization has often seemed to exist largely to be rescued or reformed, rather than to deter aggression or fight wars effectively.

As both Iraq and Afghanistan show, 21st-century conflicts will require a great expansion of nation-building skills and resources in alliance armies and civilian agencies. Enabling and encouraging Europe to contribute more to meeting these needs coincide with U.S. national interests and are worthy goals for Bush. The time and the price are right for the deal the French president seems to be proposing.