It's Hug-A-European Month for American foreign policy. First Condoleezza Rice inaugurates her tenure at the State Department with a grand tour of Europe's capitals. She wears tweed in London, speaks multilateralist in Paris, and from Brussels to Berlin dispenses erudite grace and scented bonhomie to once skeptical audiences.
Then last weekend, hot on Rice's elegant heels, and with no less enthusiasm, Donald Rumsfeld undertakes his own friendship initiative. At the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy, a venue he has used in the past to inflame European sensitivities, Rummy comes as close as his temperament and disposition will allow to being charming. What he lacks in Condi's mellifluous style, he makes up for in a bit of unaccustomed self-deprecation, telling his audience he is no longer Old Rumsfeld but a new model, one that dearly values the enduring ties that bind America and Europe.
All this activity is mere prologue, of course, to the main event. This week, President Bush will travel overseas for the first time since his re-inauguration, with symbolic stops in Brussels, for diplomatic dinners at the European Union and NATO, Germany, where he will praise transatlantic unity in a set-piece speech, and Slovakia, where he will meet Russian president Vladimir Putin.
You would have to be insensate to miss the meaning of all these semiotics. Message: We care, as the president's father might have put it. After four years in which the Bush administration has reached out to most of Europe with a single, raised middle finger, it has begun its second term with a smothering embrace.
Conscious that a sullen and hostile Europe is not in America's best interests, and eager to enlist even reluctant allies in the global struggle for liberty, the Bush team has decided to do all it can to mend fences. It won't compromise on its priorities, of course, but beyond that it will try to foster a productive relationship.
Other than the symbolism, what does all this diplomatic outreach mean? And how will Europeans respond? Can Europe be coaxed back into an alliance that will help the United States pursue its broader strategic aims?
There is a danger, in my view, that the Bush administration, in its newfound eagerness to show its kinder, less Martian, more Venusian side, will actually create bigger problems for itself. In its efforts to be diplomatically accommodating, the United States may end up supporting and bolstering a vision of Europe that is directly at odds with long-term U.S. goals and interests. Nothing is to be gained by unnecessarily antagonizing Europeans, to be sure, and the United States is right to pursue ways of cooperating. But if the early signs of the new détente are any guide, the Bush administration may find itself walking into a trap.
Since Bush's reelection last November, there have been welcome signs on both sides of the Atlantic of a willingness to bury hatchets. And this convergence of good will has been helped along by several events outside either party's control.
For starters, President Bush himself seems eager to reengage. The day after his reelection, he spoke with European leaders, including the once-despised Gerhard Schröder in Berlin, and emphasized his willingness to start afresh.
Rice's transition to State was accompanied by some other personnel moves that looked like conciliatory gestures in European eyes — the nomination of the European expert Robert Zoellick as the number two, most notably.
Europeans, too, have appeared more interested in holding up their side of this fragile but grand alliance. The successful elections in Iraq last month have been greeted with some softening in hostility to the U.S.-led war. A number of governments that had shunned the initial coalition — France and Germany, notably — have now pledged to increase their contribution to the stabilization effort with money for debt relief and even some limited military assistance for the training of Iraqi forces.
More important to this cautious rapprochement than anything either side has done or said have been the effects of outside events. The death of Yasser Arafat has created an opening in the Middle East that was unimaginable while the old terrorist was a figure of sympathy in most of Europe. That both sides can now sit down with a Palestinian leader they trust is bound to produce more common ground than has existed in the last four years. The Ukraine election — at least in its second go-around — provided a concrete example to back up the abstract bromide that Americans and Europeans share the same values. We can all unite against the ballot-riggers and the opponent-poisoners and rejoice when these tyrants fail. And the Indian Ocean tsunami concentrated minds on both sides of the Atlantic on the unique capabilities wealthy countries share to relieve suffering in benighted parts of the world.
President Bush will seek to build on all this when he visits next week. He will promise closer cooperation and may even signal some U.S. movement on contentious issues such as Middle East peace and global warming. Yet hard challenges have made a mockery of friendly gestures and warm rhetoric in the past. And there are plenty of reasons besides to think that these latest good intentions will go the way of previous ones.
Iran remains a flashpoint. Europeans simply acknowledge no alternative to their carrots-only approach of encouraging Tehran into nuclear concessions. They certainly don't share the administration's view, properly and firmly restated by Rice in one of the few evidently discordant moments of her trip that Iran is simply not to be trusted. Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, insisted in Munich that, despite all evidence to the contrary, there is a real chance the Iranians will agree to disarmament.
Then there is the E.U.'s imminent decision to lift its embargo on arms sales to China, in place since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The Europeans are currently engaged in increasingly comical efforts to justify the move — the latest being the claim that lifting the embargo is actually the only way to ensure China doesn't get the technology it wants. This nonsense only shows how determined Europe is to sell China arms again.
But the major point of contention remains Iraq, and the broader strategy it represents, of democratic transformation in the Muslim world. Behind Europe's offers of limited support lies deep skepticism about the whole effort. In Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, there is still an undiminished conviction that the war was a colossal and immoral error that will result in turmoil and suffering for all concerned. On Feb. 14, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, while the Unites States was fingering Syria and recalling its ambassador, the European Union was insisting there was no need for a change in its diplomatic relations with Damascus.
These differences are not just awkward, inconvenient blots on an otherwise pleasant landscape of Atlantic unity. They are great, ugly cleavages in basic perceptions, strategy, and policy. The Bush administration remains committed to revolutionary change throughout the world and, just as the Reagan administration did, believes America's security is inextricably tied up with the advance of liberty well beyond its borders. Europeans, meanwhile, are ever more staunch in their defense of the status quo, however unfree that may leave people. Stability, not liberty, is their aim.
These differing perceptions are familiar enough now, of course. What is new is a growing commitment by the leaders of Europe to implement a global strategy that will actively block the United States from pursuing its goal of combating tyranny.
Specifically, the European Union is now being driven steadily toward a global role that would counterbalance what the principal architects of European policy, Jacques Chirac especially, see as the pernicious influence of U.S. power.
How striking that, in 2005, the most controversial issues in the U.S.-European relationship derive from European initiatives, not American. The diplomatic outreach to Iran by the Big Three of Europe — France, Germany, and Britain — has put the more strenuous U.S. approach on hold for the time being.
The China gambit is a naked attempt, led by the French, to foster a stronger relationship between Brussels and Beijing, to the mutual benefit of both of these alternative poles to U.S. power. But to really inaugurate this shift to a multipolar world, the E.U.'s leaders still need to overcome internal dissent and the naturally fissiparous tendencies of European nation-states. So European governments and political elites are pressing ahead with their integration project. The process of adopting a new constitution for Europe is well underway in all 25 states, a process that will significantly strengthen Europe's institutional arrangements, enabling it to develop a single voice in global affairs, while suppressing alternative approaches favored by individual states.
The other element of this strategy is to undermine the Atlantic institution in which both the United States and its natural allies in Europe — the Eastern European countries, Britain, and a few other Atlanticist nations — have real clout: NATO. If France, Germany, and company can reduce NATO to a museum piece and replace it with a strategic partnership of "equals," between the United States and the European Union, they will significantly strengthen Europe's ability to act as a counterweight to U.S. power.
This aim is now quite explicit — let rather clumsily out of the bag by Chancellor Schröder in Munich last week. In a speech read for him by his defense minister, the chancellor said NATO was no longer the main location for discussion of strategic transatlantic questions. The speech then called for a panel of experts to draw up proposals for a new transatlantic architecture. Though officials tried to deny it afterwards in hastily arranged briefings, Schröder's meaning was clear: Goodbye NATO, hello U.S.-E.U. dialogue.
Instead of politely resisting this crude attempt to change the rules of transatlantic diplomacy, as it has done for the last twenty years, the United States now seems to be encouraging it. On her trip to Europe this month, Secretary of State Rice was positively enthusiastic about the E.U. constitution and the unified foreign policy institutions it will produce:
"As Europe unifies further ... and has a common foreign policy, I understand what is going to happen with the constitution, and that there will be the unification under, in effect, a foreign minister. I think that will also be a very good development," she told reporters in Luxembourg.
Not only was this an oddly undiplomatic intervention in a clearly contentious internal European matter (at least a dozen countries are holding referendums on the constitution, and the outcome is in serious doubt in at least three). It seemed a straight surrender to a European strategy that is designed not to help the United States in the long run.
To be fair, the administration's mind doesn't yet seem made up on this. At the Munich conference, invited to repeat Rice's endorsement, Donald Rumsfeld gently declined. Later, responding to questions about the changing transatlantic landscape, he said, archly: "Condi Rice doesn't have a policy. The president of the United States and the United States have policies ..."
In the endless theorizing about the transatlantic relationship, it is tempting to dismiss Europe as irrelevant, a nineteenth-century superpower in a 21st-century world.
Its sclerotic economy, stagnant demography, military obsolescence, and strategic pusillanimity create the impression of a gently disintegrating, mildly irritating, but mostly inconsequential relic. The dogs of Europe may bark, but America's caravan is moving on to the Middle East and Asia Pacific.
Such a dismissal would be foolish and shortsighted. Europe retains its potential to undermine U.S. goals. As its current strategies over Iran and China demonstrate, even a weak and divided E.U. can, as the Lilliputians did to Gulliver, complicate America's freedom of maneuver. A single, unified European approach would only make things worse.
It would be a mistake for the Unites States to actively encourage a European Union that sees itself as a growing counterweight to, not a partner of, the United States. That doesn't mean the United States needs to inaugurate another phase of mutual transatlantic mistrust. Nobody wants to replay the last four years.
But instead, and without rancor, President Bush should continue to make the case for his ideal of freedom and for policies designed to bring it about.
Persuading the E.U. as an institution to join this cause is probably hopeless; but persuading ordinary Europeans is not. When Bush spoke in Britain in November 2003 and spelled out his foreign policy vision, Britain was at the peak of anti-American sentiment. But the message, undistorted by the usual hostile media prism, went over well. The Iraqi elections last month were a further important step in winning over the persuadable parts of European public opinion.
Not all Europeans are immune to the case for U.S. leadership. They remember that we had a multipolar world between 1917 and 1989. It might have been wonderful for certain political elites, but the broader mass of humanity was the loser.
The Bush administration could also encourage its friends all over Europe, who don't want to see their continent become a brake on America's drive for freedom. Political support, through stronger practical ties and material assistance from the Republican party to conservatives across Europe, would be widely welcomed.
Above all, the United States should seek ways to strengthen and renew NATO. It should resist the calls of European superpower dreamers (and their supporters in the United States) who want to see NATO wither and be replaced by a transatlantic political community of "equals." NATO has been the best hope for the liberation of Europeans before. It should remain the cornerstone of Washington's European strategy in the global struggle for democracy.
Much is at stake in this next phase of U.S.-European relations. What a terrible irony it would be if, in its laudable efforts to reach out to Europeans, the United States were to encourage Europe to move precisely in the wrong direction. A direction that would, over time, do untold harm to American interests, and, in the end, to the interests of people who yearn for freedom around the globe.
Gerard Baker is U.S. editor of the "Times of London" and a contributing editor to "The Weekly Standard."
By Gerard Baker