The visit to Europe of this American president will decide whether George Bush has inherited sufficient common sense to dig himself out of the hole he dug for himself in his first 100 days or whether he will ignore the first law of holes: when you are in one stop digging.
Bush is discovering that, in William Pfaff’s telling phrase, Europe “is not a used-up civilisation”. “For four hundred years European civilisation has dominated the world – for better or worse. It is convenient and flattering for Americans to assume that this is all over; but it is very rash to do so.”
There have been all number of good reasons for the US to regard Europe as washed up, not just the two world-shattering wars of the last century, not just, going back, the political corruption that led to the founding of the US in the first place, nor the ending of the great empires of Britain, France and Holland, nor the economic sclerosis and Euro-pessimism of the 1970s and early 1980s, but the inability of the contemporary Europeans to pull together when up against the single-mindedness and determination of Washington. At last that has come to end, some would add, not a moment too late.
This Europe is a Europe that has not been so confident since the rout of Napoleon and the Concert of Europe. Moreover, it now has, through the European Union, the institutional strength to weather the kind of economic and political upheavals that so unexpectedly destroyed its tranquillity in 1914 and which took the best part of forty years to put right. With the development of the euro-currency and, hard on its heels, the European defence initiative (and with Tony Blair re-elected in Britain both will now get a powerful shot in the arm) Europe has discovered a new confidence and sense of independence, one that was already well under way once Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear the cold war was over and that Russia saw its future home in Europe too.
Clearly the new Bush administration has been taken back by the strength of European resistance to its first efforts at policy making. Having thrown down the gauntlet on a range of issues, from global warming to missile defence, it now has indicated that it has stopped digging down. Friday’s statement by Bush was a remarkable volte-face: “Russia is no longer our enemy and therefore we shouldn’t be locked into a cold war mentality that says we keep the peace by blowing each other up. In my attitude, that’s old, that’s tired, that’s stale.”
While, as a candidate, Bush had given hints that he believed that sharp reductions in nuclear armaments (which Clinton never seriously addressed) was a corollary of missile defence, he never spelt it out. Neither did he when he made his big pitch for missile defence last month. Indeed, one could say he still hasn’t. Nevertheless, this statement of last Friday, if it has any meaning at all, is saying in effect that the US no longer needs to maintain nuclear deterrence with Russia. In which case, yes indeed, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is redundant and missile defences, if still regarded as necessary, can be done as a collective enterprise with Europe and Russia.
Similarly, the administration’s announcement that it is going to renew negotiations with North Korea is another somersault of great significance. The Clinton administration’s patient footslogging negotiations with the Stalinist regime paid off. Not only did it win a freeze on nuclear weapons development, it made some progress on persuading Pyongyang to slow down its sales of rockets abroad and, most important of all, it helped break down the ice wall that divided it from South Korea. Now, it is possible once again to think of seeing President Kim Dae Jung’s sunshine policy taking another step forward, with Kim Il Sung making a state visit to the South and even some further steps forward on developing more transparency in its rocket programme and nuclear research.
One can now conceive again, as the Clinton administration began to, of a more normal relationship, in which anti-missile defences aimed against North Korea would be unnecessary. This, of course, would beg the difficult question: Are they being developed just to contain China, which is something the Indians would like and some people, a minority, in Taiwan and Japan, but which makes no sense to the rest of the world?
The Europeans, undoubtedly, are going to keep pushing hard on these issues all week. At the moment, the new policies of the Bush administration are at best skeletal, at worst contradictory. Secretary of State Colin Powell appears to be conducting a sophisticated, nuanced foreign policy that allows bridges to be built with Europe. Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld appears still intent on constructing a sledgehammer, as if the Berlin wall had never come down and as if China had never parted company from Mao Tse-tung and his concept of “permanent revolution”.
Bush will find all along the road he travels this week a different Europe from the one his father dealt with, even a different one from the early Clinton years. Its opposition is not going to melt away; if anything, it is going to become more severe and more independently minded as time goes on. The question that Bush is coming face to face with this week is how much of an antagonist does he want to make of Europe?
Mr. Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and author. He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.