Thursday, March 31, 2005

Wolfowitz in/and Europe

Perhaps surprisingly, we have not yet discussed here Bush's two controversial recent appointments: John Bolton, an arch unilateralist and neoconservative as the US ambassador to the United Nations; and Paul Wolfowitz, "architect of the Iraq war" and neoconservative to the head of the World Bank. The latter has proved the more controversial of the two; however, it seems that, after a trip to Europe yesterday, Wolfowitz has won over enough people in Europe to ensure that his appointment won't be blocked. Such a move would have been unprecedented; by traditionm, the US chooses the head of the World Bank, while the EU selects the head of the IMF. Both, however, possess the formal power to block the other's nomination; after yesterday, however, it is clear that Europe will not do so in this case.

Perhaps most surprising, and most concerning from a European point of view, is not the mere fact, as many have suggested, that both appointments seem to send a clear signal to the world about the US's intentions to make use of multilateral institutions to further its own policy goals: such cannot, in all honesty, have come as a particular surprise to anybody. However, it does seem to me that there is, in the personalities selected, a message directly from Bush to Europe that, regarded in isolation, seems surprising; when put into the context of the last few months, becomes little short of astonishing.

I posted a couple of weeks ago on Bush's apparently successful, "bridge-building" mission to Europe, which itself had built upon the success of Secretary of State Rice's visit a few months earlier. The rhetoric at that time was all about unity: "No temporary debate, no passing disagreement of governments, no power on earth will ever divide us", proclaimed President Bush - a clear reference to the war on Iraq. Many in Europe, "old" and "new" alike, were won over by these words, and began to look forward to a new period of transatlantic harmony. America, it seemed, and the Bush administartion in particular, had learned (perhaps from the ongoing troubles in Iraq), that it simply couldn't "go it alone" in terms of its foreign ppolicy goals; it needed its old allies.

Which is what makes the appointments of Bolton and Wolfowitz so astonishing. After his visit to Europe, many will have been expecting the reconciliatory tone to be followed by actions of a similar kind - with, perhaps, someone like Powell being appointmed to the UN post. Far from it: indeed, it is difficult to imagine two appointments more likely to upset Europeans than Bolton to the UN and Wolfowitz to the World Bank. Clare Short, the outspoken ex-Cabinet Minister in the UK, stated that it was as if Bush was sticking "two fingers up to the world" (a statement that may puzzle some Europeans; it means something similar to the one-fingered "salute"). Given the context of transatlantic relations in the first few months of the year, the insult must have been particularly keenly felt in Europe.

Bush will have been only too aware of the reaction that these appointments was likely to generate. They can only be viewed as a very deliberately orchestrated show of strength, with Europe as the primary intended audience. For the moment, it seems to have worked; Europe will not block Wolfowitz, and in all likelihood would not have even if reconcialtory noises about a senior role in his World Bank leadership team, or even support for Frenchman Pascal Lamy's candidature for the head of the WTO, had not been forthcoming. With these appointments, then, Bush has firmly (and, I suggest, quite deliberately) re-established the US as the senior partner in the transatlantic alliance, despite the rhetoric of togetherness that had characterised the months in the leadup to these announcements. However, he may be storing up problems for the future. In the UK, it seems that, amongst the senior members of Government, practically only Tony Blair was unphased by the decision (indeed, he knew about it some time in advance, and neglected to forewarn his Cabinet colleagues). Perhaps most significantly, Gordon Brown, currently Chancellor of the Exchequer but the man many in Britian believe - and hope - will be the next Prime Minister, was described by sources close to him as "incandescent" at the Wolfowitz nomination in particular. It will be interesting to see, with time, if the deeply symbolic implications of these two appointments for EU-US relations do not come back to haunt Bush, or, if the situation was to arise, any Republican successor.

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