WASHINGTON—Mindful that U.S.-European relations soured dramatically during his first term, President Bush begins a four-day tour Sunday to mend the frayed transatlantic partnership and build support for his plans to rebuild Iraq and reshape the politics of the Middle East.
With carefully choreographed stops in Belgium, Germany and Slovakia, Bush intends to show he understands that he needs to work closely with Europe on global issues.
"It's an important trip in that it may represent a last chance to salvage an Atlantic partnership that's in dire straits," said Charles Kupchan, the director of Europe studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research center.
The trip is Bush's first foreign journey of his second term and the earliest trip to Europe by any president after an inauguration, reflecting the importance the White House places on setting a new tone in the relationship.
Alongside traditional meetings with NATO and European Union officials in Brussels, Bush will take time for private asides with French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin, all of whom strongly opposed the war in Iraq.
"The contour of the world after Sept. 11 is becoming clearer," said John Hulsman, a Europe analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center in Washington. "We live in a world where the U.S. is the chairman of the board, but it must engage with some of the other board members, whatever the issue."
Bush said last Thursday that he wanted to dispel the notion in Europe that all he cared about was America's national security and to reassure Europeans that "as we move beyond the differences of the past ... we can work a lot together to achieve big objectives."
No more talk of "freedom" fries or Old Europe vs. New Europe. Rapprochement is the buzzword in the White House now, as evidenced by recent European visits by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, both of whom won generally positive reviews abroad.
"The president is in the middle of a charm offensive, and charm is important because they (the White House) didn't display any in the first term," said Jeremy Shapiro, the associate director of the Center on the United States and France at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center in Washington. "He's trying to bring across that the U.S. recognizes and is willing to deal with a united Europe, not just one country or another. That's a big step in the relationship."
But will it be enough?
Major differences separate Washington from Europe over the administration's rejection of the Kyoto climate-change treaty, its refusal to participate in the International Criminal Court and its withdrawal from the 33-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, not to mention Iraq.
The potential for sharper acrimony is large. The United States and the European Union, which comprises 25 countries and 450 million people, haven't yet devised a unified strategy on Iran. The White House is unhappy with EU plans to lift a 15-year-old arms embargo on China. And Bush wants more help in Iraq from a reluctant Europe.
"It would be a great mistake for the administration to think that they are dealing with the same Europe it ignored four years ago," said Ivo Daalder, a foreign-policy expert at Brookings. "Europe is larger and more united than ever. Europe learned something from Iraq: When it is divided, it doesn't go anywhere."
Concerned about the potential for greater damage to transatlantic relations, 61 prominent foreign-policy and national-security experts from both sides of the Atlantic released a 4,000-word paper last Thursday suggesting ways that the United States and Europe can find common ground on thorny issues.
Regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions, for example, the document recommends that Washington openly embrace the EU's desire for dialogue with Tehran. Europe, in turn, should declare its readiness to impose serious penalties on Iran if it fails to satisfy the allies.
Kupchan thinks Chirac, Schroeder and other European leaders appear willing to meet Bush halfway, but may be hampered by the wildly anti-Bush sentiment that predominates public opinion in their countries.
A poll last month by the German Marshall Fund found that 76 percent of Europeans disapprove of Bush's handling of international policies, an increase of 12 percentage points from the fund's 2003 poll.
"Chirac and Schroeder will have to walk a fine line," Kupchan said. "They have to give Bush something, but not a lot. If they give him too much, they face backlash back home. They have to be seen as tough."
Bush, too, may find himself walking a fine line when he meets Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Thursday. Their summit comes nearly four weeks after Bush, in his inaugural address, outlined his vision of spreading democracy, "ending tyranny" in "every nation" and holding foreign governments to account for human rights abuses.
Human rights groups are urging Bush to get tough with Putin about Moscow's crackdown on political opposition and its heavy-handed meddling in the presidential election in next-door Ukraine.
But Putin has been a key ally in Bush's war on terrorism and Russia is a party to the six-nation talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. It also is part of the so-called quartet—with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations—that's working to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
"This may well be the most interesting stop; how is he going to handle Putin, talk tough while maintaining the relationship," said Simon Serfaty, senior adviser for the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center. "President Bush once said he looked into Putin's soul. These two will not be soul brothers this time."
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley wouldn't say what tone Bush intends to take with Putin.
"There clearly have been some developments recently that have raised some questions and concerns," Hadley said at a White House briefing, "and I'm confident the president will discuss them with President Putin."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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