Restoring Relations with Europe Takes More than Nice Words

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

December 5, 2004

In the days immediately after his reelection, President George W. Bush moved swiftly to assure America’s European friends that the next four years would be different from the last—that in a second term, he would devote time and energy to rebuilding the alliances that had been torn apart by disagreements over Iraq and other issues.

In his first press conference after the election, Bush made clear that he would “reach out to our allies and friends,” and specifically singled out “our partners” in NATO and the Europe Union. After the election, NATO’s Secretary General was the first foreign official to visit the Oval Office; Tony Blair followed the next day. At the same time, Condoleezza Rice welcomed her French counterpart to the White House. And Bush announced that he would travel to Europe as soon as possible after the inauguration “to remind people that the word is better off, America is better off, Europe is better off when we work together.”

The change in tone is a welcome contrast to the general denigration of Europe that marked Bush’s first term. Then, NATO was dismissed as an institution that fought wars by committee and undermined America’s ability to act, and Europe as a whole was castigated as weak and indecisive. Opposition to U.S. policy reflected little more than the concerns of “old Europe,” while longstanding allies like Germany were compared to foes like Libya and Cuba.

Now, the tone emanating from official Washington is quite different. But it will take more than nice words, Oval Office visits, and presidential trips to rebuild a shattered relationship. It will, in some key instances, require a change in American policy. For while Bush’s style has grated many Europeans, it is his administration’s policies that have caused the gap between the United States and Europe to widen so precipitously.

On some major issues—notably Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the differences between the United States and Europe are likely to remain unbridgeable. Bush is never going to see the decision to invade Iraq, or even the conduct of the postwar period, as a mistake. Most Europeans will continue to believe it was the wrong thing to do. While Europe and America have a common interest in ensuring Iraq comes out alright, the commitment each will make to that end will inevitably be colored by this diverging assessment.

Differences are also likely to persist about the other major conflict in the Middle East. In Europe, the core of the problem is believed to be Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and there is a widely held belief that Washington can do more to press Israel to change this state of affairs. In contrast, the dominant view in the United States is that Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s lack of security are the fundamental problem, and that U.S. pressure is neither an appropriate nor an effective means to ending the conflict. The U.S.-Europe standoff on this issue will therefore continue.

But on other issues, a change in policy is both possible and desirable. One such change involves the value of alliances like NATO. After 9/11, the Bush administration dismissed alliances as undue constraints on America’s freedom of action. Its motto was that “the mission defines the coalition.” But while Washington has been left free to act as it wishes, it has done so virtually on its own, without the aid of many key allies whose contributions could have made a welcome difference. The costs to Americans, in Iraq and elsewhere, is plain for all to see. One important policy change, therefore, would be for Bush to make clear that Washington will once again work through alliances rather than on the basis of ad-hoc coalitions.

A similar change in direction is desirable with respect to the European Union. Throughout its first term, the Bush administration made clear that it preferred Europe to be weak and divided rather than strong and united. This was short-sighted. For all our power, our resources are limited and our capacity to meet global challenges like terrorism and weapons proliferation depends on the cooperation of others, most especially our European friends. Bush therefore should make clear that the United States has nothing to fear from a strong, united Europe, and that Washington welcomes every effort that makes such a Europe more of a reality.

Finally, Bush will need to recommit to upholding and strengthening global norms and rules dealing with issues like global warming, proliferation, and Guantanamo. Nothing damaged America’s image in Europe as much as Bush’s abandonment of America’s championing of the rule of law in international affairs. From declaring Kyoto dead to actively undermining international treaties on war, Bush conveyed a sense of America as being above the law. To regain Europe’s trust, he will have to commit America to strengthen rules curbing global warming, halting proliferation, dealing with Guantanamo and war crimes, and other such global issues.

Will Bush change policy in the ways his rhetoric implies? Not likely. In the same press conference in which he said he would reach out to friends and allies he also noted that he would continue making decisions with little regard to the perspectives of these same friends and allies. “I will reach out to others and explain why I make the decisions I make.” Not much comfort to those others who, even knowing the explanation, profoundly doubt the decisions this president has made.