Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Bush in Europe: Towards a Genuine Rapprochement?

Bush’s visit to Europe is being seen by many as an attempt to repair relations after the low point of the Iraqi conflict. Certainly, his tone thus far, in particular in the speech he gave in Brussels yesterday, has been conciliatory; and, for the most part, well received by the European politicians, press and public. Certainly, there seems to be no question this time of either punishing the French or Ignoring the Germans (although the Italians very nearly fell into this latter category, with only last-minute action by Rome ensuring that Berlusconi was on the list of European leaders chosen to "lecture" Bush on a variety of subjects; see here). The Russians, however, will, it seems, still be forgiven: despite some strong remarks earlier concerning Putin's democratic credentials, it is assumed that, when the two leaders meet tomorrow in Bratislava in Slovakia, the emphasis here also will be on healing rifts and building friendly relations.

Bush has been quite clear about the purpose of his visit: yesterday's speech was absolutely full of references to the "transatlantic alliance" and the need for Europe and America to cooperate in the face of complex global challenges. In one of the most striking passages, he stated that "No temporary debate, no passing disagreement of governments, no power on earth will ever divide us". But can we really refer to the disagreements, primarily but not exclusively over the Iraq war, as simple passing disagreements amongst temporary governments, to be offset by the essental, eternal, fundamental agreement on the values of civilised humanity? Can words like these really repair the damage done?

Certainly, there are a number of factors that have combined to make this an opportune time for an attempt of this sort, as the perceived success of Secretary of State Rice's visit to Europe last month demonstrates. The Iraqi elections are widely regarded to have been a success, contributing to a significant diffusion of tension in the area that would likely have been the most vexed otherwise. Moreover, there are signs that the death of Arafat has opened some doors in terms of the peace process between Israel and Palastine, another area of frequent transatlantic disagreement. Lastly, relations between France and the US, which was undoubtedly the most bitter diplomatic battlefield during the war, have certainly been improved by the project of the jointly-sponsored Security Council resolution calling for the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon (a topic that has, of course, become all the more pressing since the assasination of Hariri last week). At no point since the intervention in Iraq has the reality of the international sphere been more favourable to transatlantic rapprochement.

It is, however, not quite as simple as to suggest that we can now look forawrd to an era of transatlantic harmony in international affairs. As many commentators have noted, several real divisions remain; and the fragile sense of goodwill engendered by the fortuitous coincidence of several pieces of good news on the global front may not, will not last forever. In this sense, to argue, as Bush did, that the problems were mere transitory glitches, essentially unimportant when compared to our shared values, is as ultimately reductive and utterly unhelpful as it is to argue that Europe and America are hopelessly and eternally divided. Neither position can help us in furthering our understanding of what has happened, or what is likely to happen, on the international level. As one Guardian article has noted (here: ignore the analogy between Bush in Europe and Nixon in China at the beginning, which is stretched to say the least, and there are many interesting points in it), major issues such as climate change, the EU's relationship with China, and, perhaps most importantly, the correct way to deal with Iran (and its now ally, Syria), still exist; in terms of the latter, while both sides are "committed" to diplomacy at present, there can be little doubt that the Americans are deeply sceptical of its potential for success - and preparing for the possibility of military action in this area. If that should happen, the much-trumpeted goodwill and conciliation of the last few days will be very quickly forgotten. The EU-US rapprochement that we are currently witnessing still depends, very much, on the unlikely continuation of the recent good news on the international front in the areas that I have mentioned. It is, unfortunately, likely to be just as transitory.

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