THE fact that relations between the United States and France are icy is significant, but might well be dismissed as an old story. What's not old is the clouding over of relations between the US and all of Western Europe; and a tendency, in compensation, to stress the importance of the new relationship with our old adversary, Russia.
The triumph of 1989-90 now looks like a false dawn in US relations with the European Community nations. Speeches in '89 by President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III talked of America's desire to establish an international partnership with the EC. This phase - in which the US took a more favorable view of Western Europe integration than any time since the days of John F. Kennedy, and sought to replace its old dominance with transatlantic cooperation - culminated in the declaration on US -EC relations of November 1990. Culminated, and ended, for that policy track has been abandoned.
What happened? From Washington's perspective, the Western Europeans were unable to respond to the challenging opportunity we gave them. They have been neither internally united nor, as a group, forthcoming to the US.
The war against Iraq was a key turning point. It tested the Europeans, and found them wanting - in unity, resolve, and capability. It revived the sense in Washington that military might does count more than economic strength, and that only the US has the military muscle and political will to lead. More recently, the tragic events in Yugoslavia confirmed Washington in its irritated condescension toward the Community; we gave it the lead, in a situation where we did not feel our own interests were vitally threatened, and it couldn't perform.
Europe's inability to achieve a common foreign and security policy has, in the last 18 months, led to a real split in its own ranks. France, with some support from Germany, has pursued the notion of a European defense identity separate from NATO, causing great irritation in the US administration. The other countries have refused to follow the French lead, fearful that it might cost them the security afforded them by the US military commitment to Europe.
At the same time, the Community has failed to respond adequately to the American effort to produce major trade liberalization by successful completion of the Uruguay Round. In the process, the budding special relationship between the US and Germany has come under a cloud because Chancellor Helmut Kohl has been either unwilling or unable to force the French into line.
WHILE the US relationship with Western Europe - not just France - has deteriorated, Russia's evolution from communism and its willingness to be cooperative on a wide range of international issues have created a new possibility. There is no longer one and only one possible ally for the US in Europe. Now there is an alternative - democratic, cooperative Russia. This alternative is all the more attractive if Western Europe is seen as irritating, fractious, and economically competitive with the US. The idea of Russia as chosen partner is reinforced by nostalgia for the good old days when the USSR and US divided the world.
All of this is understandable, but dangerous.
Russia, aside from its inherited "capital stock" of nuclear weapons, is not strong, even militarily. A few months of democracy under President Boris Yeltsin are not proof that its future political course will be compatible with our own.
Western Europe, on the other hand, is the only economic unit in the world that matches or exceeds the US in significance, and transatlantic economic integration is so great that any attempt at separation would produce acute pain. Western Europe has values and interests that leave no doubt of its essential unity of world view with the US; it is an irreplaceable political-military partner.
In short, trading Western Europe for Russia would be an incredibly bad deal. We must seek to maintain good relations with Russia. But we should not abandon our essential alliance with Western Europe, however difficult it may seem. Indeed, we had it right in 1989-90: A stable and cooperative US-European relationship depends upon Western Europe's achieving the unity it has long sought. The US should certainly encourage it in that quest.