France, Germany Discuss Russia Partnership

The leaders of France, Germany and Russia meet to discuss security cooperation.

Ahead of the G20 summit in South Korea later this month, the leaders of France, Germany and Russia met privately to discuss the future of economic and security cooperation between Russia and the West.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev as well as German chancellor Angela Merkel for two days of talks at the Normandy seaside resort of Deauville this week. No major decisions are expected to be announced; Merkel and Sarkozy wouldn’t want to be seen as trying to bypass the rest of the European Union.

The trilateral meeting doesn’t only precede the G20 but also a major NATO summit. After several months of contemplating the future of the alliance, a panel chaired by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will be presenting a new approach for NATO in Lisbon next month. Although NATO’s expansion into Central Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union continues to be regarded as a threat from Moscow, European leaders are hoping that President Medvedev will lend support to whatever new strategy the allies decide upon.

“We will discuss whether it is possible for Russia and NATO to cooperate better because the era of the Cold War is definitely over,” said Merkel on Saturday. Sarkozy has long argued that Russia is now a partner of the West instead of a threat and deserves to be treated as such.

France under Sarkozy’s leadership has fostered closer ties with Russia, selling three Mistral class amphibious assault ships to the former Cold War rival and rallying Russian support for sanctions against Iran. Germany is very much dependent on the import of Russian gas.

The three leaders are reportedly discussing the prospect of creating a single zone of security and economic cooperation that will pull Russia closer to the EU. Existing frameworks as NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have proven unable to further unite the two blocs.

A more independent French posture toward Russia stems from the period of détente when Paris attempted to enlist West Germany into adopting a more European approach to Cold War policy. Bonn at the time would not upset its relations with the United States whereas Moscow didn’t see any point in negotiating with France separately. Times have changed.

France will take over the G20 presidency for next year and simultaneously chair the G7. President Sarkozy has already teamed up with Merkel to implement stricter financial regulation and is planning a series of initiatives to prepare the G20 for a role of permanent economic governance. French diplomats have been in consultation with their Chinese counterparts for over a year to discuss China’s troublesome exchange rate policy and more ambitious ideas about the future of global monetary management.

The Americans are none too happy with the French, German and Russian leaders discussing international governance and common security ahead of major conferences without their presence. But the Obama Administration hasn’t exactly courted Europe in recent months. It has repeatedly and publicly criticized European austerity and canceled a traditional summit earlier this year, probably because of plain old irritation with the “who’s in charge” question even after the Lisbon Treaty was enacted. Barack Obama moreover has, quite understandably, attempted to portray himself as more of a Pacific president, feeding anxiety with old allies about his commitment to transatlantic relations. America’s frustration with the continent acting more independently is shortsighted however.

In spite of the supposed “reset” in relations with Russia and the signing of a new START agreement, relations between the two superpowers haven’t been cordial. Moscow long blocked Iran sanctions and is playing only a limited role in Afghanistan.

The strategic reassurance of China meanwhile hasn’t gone smoothly either with conflict brewing in the South China Sea. Beijing is refusing to bow to American pressure on the matter of its currency moreover with Premier Wen Jiabao urging Europe not to “join the choir” clamoring for a rapid appreciation of the yuan in Brussels last week.

If there is to be a new Atlantic order benefiting both Europe and the United States, the Americans will have to accept that European states pursue their own interest as well, just as they are expected to accept American unilateralism. America is a stagnant hegemon that could benefit from Europe’s different relations with Moscow and Beijing. If the Obama Administration is serious about multilateralism, it can’t expect to continue to participate in every high level meeting at the same time.