The Washington Times
George W. Bush had a superb trip to Europe earlier this month, simultaneously winning professions of admiration from European leaders, convincingly restating the U.S. commitment to remain engaged, advancing his case for missile defense, moving NATO enlargement forward in fulfillment of the vision of “Europe whole and free” and successfully engaging with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Why did things go so well for the American president? After all, Europe has been the headquarters of Bush disdain since last fall, before he took office. Who was this no-nothing cowboy, hell-bent on putting people to death at home and completely ignorant of matters abroad? What kind of marauding insensitivity was the world in store for with such a man at the helm of the world’s biggest power? And after the fiasco of the U.S. election, how would it be possible to take seriously the American pretense to be an exemplary democratic country?
A commitment to Europe? More like an isolationist impulse; witness the desire to renege on the commitment to stability in the Balkans by withdrawing the small number of U.S. forces there. Missile defense? A flagrant unilateral attempt to upset the settled doctrine of nuclear deterrence at best, and perhaps also a brazen bid to enhance American power beyond even its current hypertrophied status. Consider also the arrogance of the U.S. repudiation of the Kyoto treaty on global warming. Here was a clear signal that the United States would refuse to be bound by any international norms whatsoever, instead offering specious justifications for its own exceptionalism, while in reality merely flexing its muscle. The United States should take the surprise of its non-election earlier this year to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. This would be a reproach from a world grown increasingly impatient with American arrogance, or something like that, running nonstop for six months – until Mr. Bush’s trip to Europe, whereupon it did stop.
What accounts for the change? Three things, I think. First, Mr. Bush’s discipline and his retail political skills. He obviously had a clear agenda for the trip, and he stuck to it. That reflects clarity in executive decision-making and an administration speaking with one voice when it counts. As well, I think Mr. Bush’s charm offensive with Mr. Putin was psychologically astute, both with regard to Mr. Putin and our European allies. In the case of Mr. Putin, the question is this: Is he the sort of Russian leader who will be more helpful, or in any case less difficult, as a result of being invited to Mr. Bush’s ranch in Texas? For reasons related to the hardly trivial question of Russian national self-esteem, it’s a decent bet that he might.
As for the Europeans, there has long been a risk that one or more of them (Germany in particular) would assign itself a special relationship with Russia, the role of principal interlocutor and uniquely discerning interpreter of Russian sensitivities. This would complicate American relations with Russia and alliance relations too. But that is less likely the more direct the communication is between the American and Russian presidents.
The second source of Mr. Bush’s success was the overblown character of the disdain. In the first place, as Guillaume Parmentier noted at a Brookings Institution conference on France earlier this month, the Bush caricature in Europe actually has its origins in the United States. Think of “Saturday Night Live.” In another illustration of American “soft power,” the Europeans were hectoring our president with words we put in their mouths. In addition, there is a European echo chamber effect from the presidential campaign, where most European governments, run by center-left parties, were naturally more in sympathy with Al Gore’s candidacy and therefore tended to pick up on and repeat the foreign policy warnings the Gore team was sounding about Mr. Bush. This partisan rhetoric has little relationship to reality, as the very success of Mr. Bush’s trip demonstrates.
The third source of Mr. Bush’s success, I think, lies in U.S. power as such. Resentment is the price we pay for being No. 1, and while it is unpleasant to be resented, it would be more unpleasant not to be No. 1. In any case, resentment finds its principal expression in off-the-record comments and secret ballots, hence our ignominious non-election to the Human Rights Commission.
Viewed properly, there is a certain comedy to governments using their secret ballot to send a message they could never send if they had to raise their hands. When the lights and cameras are on, the United States is indisputably at the center. For most countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, the most important bilateral relationship each one has is the one with the United States, and each of these relationships is, to put it bluntly, more important to them than us.
Mr. Bush has a good hand. But that does not relieve him of the burden of playing it well. In Europe, he did.