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Europe — As Irritating as Women’s Lib?

Four theses on where the United States stands vis-à-vis Europe.

February 25, 2005

Four theses on where the United States stands vis-à-vis Europe.

1 — Trust, But Verify
2 — As Irritating as Women’s Lib?
3 — More Respect Than for the Democrats?
4 — Toward Polygamy — Or the Multi-Polar World?

During his February 2005 visit to Europe, George Bush surely hit a lot of the right notes. After a long drought, he stressed understanding and cooperation, which most Europeans do appreciate. In fact, they wished he would have said those things four years ago — and not wasted the intervening years.

But ultimately, the Europeans don’t quite believe his music. They view Mr. Bush's speeches almost in a way that is reminiscent of what the late Ronald Reagan said when he met Mikhail Gorbachev.

He famously said "trust but verify" — meaning, I hear your words but don’t quite believe them. It’s up to you to prove that on all these issues, we are really moving toward each other.

Is it disastrous – or impertinent — for Europeans to draw parallels to how Mr. Reagan viewed Mr. Gorbachev? Is that how low we have sunk?

Some may think so. Others may wish it weren't so. But it is. As in any stressed relationship, the road to improvement begins with an honest assessment of where we are.

The Europeans' ears are still burning with the many declarations coming out of Washington — including very senior levels of the Bush Administration — about the diminishing relevance of NATO. Americans, they heard, preferred an "alliance of the willing" where nobody asks questions and just follows.

No wonder that many Europeans, including leading British opinion makers, are confused about Washington's new-found love for NATO — now that Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has asked out loud whether it makes sense to rely on NATO alone.

To say "How dare you?" now — and to profess NATO's sudden all-encompassing sanctity — shows how little honesty there is in dealing with each other.

The NATO episode demonstrates the dangers of chastising the Europeans by virtue of the Washington-proclaimed irrelevance of NATO anno 2003 and 2004.

The risk is that the bluff will be called — as Mr. Schröder did, albeit in a constructive fashion.

The real issue raised by Mr. Bush's visit to Europe is whether his apparent change of his mindset — and emphasizing a cooperative relationship with Europe – can succeed at home.

For that to happen, all the senators and members of the House, as well as all the commentariat, all the Washington pundits would need to be prepared, at least in principle, to follow on his revised line.

However, anybody looking at the newspapers or television shows or reading Congressional press releases or resolutions is overwhelmed with ardent, daily efforts to tear apart the fabric of transatlantic relations.

Typically, the punch line is that the Europeans are called unfriendly, ill-informed — or worse.

The present state of U.S.-European relations really reminds me, in some funny way, that Europe is viewed with the same unease that women’s lib, for God’s sake, is irritating quite a few people in the United States.

And yet, in the family and the world at large, the trend has been to move away from the dominance of a patriarch. Just as the husband's word is no longer the final authority, it is no longer the United States — the "man of the house" — who always rules the roost.

That may be hard to swallow for some.

But it is self-evident that, whether one likes it or not, we are living in a world that is much more about partnerships than domination, and a world where one tries to accommodate each other on a daily basis.

Accommodating Europe raises a further complication. To date, President Bush has not shown any willingness to compromise with the Democrats at home on any meaningful issue.

As he said during his first press conference after his reelection, “”I’ll reach out to everyone who shares our goals.” It is hard to imagine that the President will treat the Europeans better — that is, in a more accommodative fashion — than with the Democrats at home.

That essentially leaves one of three choices: First, Mr. Bush has no intention to accommodate either the Europeans or the Democrats. Second, he will need to engage in a parallel maneuver of truly reaching out to the Democrats — in order to create leeway for his domestic agenda as well as his international dealings.

Or, third, he will drive a hard bargain against both – and only accommodate either the Europeans or the Democrats only in very select cases, where the latter two they are willing to deal on his terms entirely.

For all the carefully arranged atmospheric improvements in Brussels and elsewhere, it is important to keep in mind what the German Chancellor said.

The United States and Germany (as well as Europe at large) are keen on focusing more on the things "where we agree than where we disagree." This, instead of saying, as in the past three years, "we agree to disagree."

What this foreshadows is the realization that President Bush's 2005 visit to Europe really took place amidst the onset of the multi-polar world. To be sure, it will still take a few years for everybody to realize it — and some will try to resist this insight to eternity, if they could.

The preferred mode of operations of the Bush Administration is one of a series of "G2 relationships" — one where it tells Europe, Japan, India, China, Russia and so on that, working together with the United States, they will run the world.

At its core, a globe-spanning system of such relationships may be enticing in the eyes of Washington policymakers, but it is essentially polygamous in nature — and hence still basically rooted in a patriarchic world.

In the real world, few nations or regions fall for the all too transparent offer of an exclusive relationship to run the world jointly with the United States.

In the real world, everybody now deals with everybody on every other issue. And I think this is a very positive development for the United States — because it keeps the country from being overloaded.

But the U.S. capital is still quite a ways away from taking that to heart. Most people here still put too much weight on the president and the United States. As important as this country is, and will remain, it is not the only game. Maybe in this town it is, but not in the world anymore.

Editiorial note:

These four theses are adapted from Stephan Richter’s remarks during a roundtable conversation on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” broadcast on February 23, 2005 — and moderated by Ray Suarez. For a transcript of the full conversation, click here.