A Union of the West? Balladur says it's time
By John Vinocur
Monday, January 7, 2008
International Herald Tribune
PARIS: And now for something radical. It's an idea that comes from a dour-looking man with an acute political mind whose ecclesiastically scarlet or royally purple socks peak out from under the dark trousers of Savile Row suits.
Here's his notion: The United States and Europe soon risk being overtaken by the rest of the world. To hold on to their place and value system, they ought to form an organic alliance, a Union of the West.
The time to get moving is now.
The idea comes from Edouard Balladur, the former French prime minister whose belly-of-the-beast Gaullist establishment credentials stretch back 40 years. Today, part of his pertinence lies in a close relationship with Nicolas Sarkozy, once his budget minister and spokesman, who a decade ago argued that Balladur would make a better president than Jacques Chirac.
For all its deliberately provocative and spiky aura, Balladur's Union of the West concept is not a bolt out of the blue.
Rather, it extends into a Great Notion a current, but still hesitant, attempt to bring the United States and the European Union closer together.
That project involves the sketchy outlines of a trans-Atlantic economic zone. Pushed by Angela Merkel, and backed in principle by Gordon Brown, it led last year to promising meetings between groups of EU commissioners and U.S. cabinet-level officials aimed at a vast harmonization of trade-related issues.
Worthy stuff, not radical or sexy, yet an undertaking that, an American participant said, "I think has legs."
But its wide, underlying premise has been left without substantial articulation by Merkel and Brown - and avoided by the Bush administration:
Europe and the United States acting in concert can best deal with China and Russia's advance, and the instability brought by radical Islam. Reality insists that alone, the Americans and Europeans have growing disadvantages in a world where the rule of law and democracy are not serving as controls over newly distributed economic and political power.
Balladur confronts the issue. He makes the case that half-measures that fail to bundle the West's strengths won't be a sufficient response. In a 120-page essay titled "Pour une Union occidentale entre l'Europe et les États-Unis," he says:
"History is starting to be made without the West, and perhaps one day it will be made against it.
"There's a simple method for avoiding this. The people of the West must become aware of the risk and convince themselves that the greatest possible solidarity between them is the only means for dealing with it."
For Balladur, there must be "a new alliance between Europe and America, and even more - a true union."
Twenty years ago, he told me, the idea was premature. That was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the midst of the Soviet Union's implosion, when Secretary of State James Baker called for the development of a new, organic relationship between the European Union and the United States.
America was too uniquely all-powerful, and Europe too weak and suspicious of American dominance, for it to happen then. Now, in a new context, with the limits of U.S. power more apparent, and Europe's chances as a go-it-alone superstate limited or rejected, the concept has become actual.
Last autumn, Merkel, heightening the tone of her interest, said Europeans and Americans mistook "the mission of the trans-Atlantic relationship" if they did not to see that "combining our strengths goes in our interests, to our conception of being able to live by certain values."
Now, according to Balladur, France, as a former symbol of anti-Americanism, which realizes a weakened America disserves European interests, must take the initiative in creating a Union of the West.
The practicalities: a permanent Union secretariat to prepare common positions for international meetings; gradual creation of a common trans-Atlantic market; linkage between the dollar and euro; converging policies on energy supply and its security; and the creation of a trans-Atlantic executive council of leaders that would convene every three months.
Balladur won't say if that council should have decision-making powers. But he insists it would represent "immense progress" if it met frequently, and if "neither Europeans nor Americans could decide anything about common problems without having talked them through beforehand."
Drivel born out of desperation? An escapist proposal that excuses the rich and comfortable from looking closer and less indulgently at their own failures?
"Too great an ambition?" Balladur asks the question himself, and sounds Oswald Spengler-ish in providing an answer.
"There aren't any others that will allow the West to escape the decline threatening it." America's indispensability has a 20-year time frame; Europe has to stop "nourishing" its "illusion of power."
Sarkozy's old mentor sent his essay to the president, and he has telephoned Balladur to thank him for it.
For a politician who lives his life and makes policy outside the confines of convention, great ambitions don't confront much inhibition.
Seven months into a five-year term, Sarkozy has already struck a claim to European leadership, proposed a Mediterranean Union for the European and Arab countries along its shores and readied France's reintegration in NATO on the condition it gets its share of prestigious commands.
He plays big.
Sarkozy's New Year's to-do list includes making France the "soul" of a "new renaissance" with "a policy of civilization" required by "our old world."
On a Union of the West, if Sarkozy played a little smaller against the background of a leadership change in America, reaching not so much for effect but for the proposal's nuggets of practicality and general good sense, it might just have a long-shot chance at some success.