President Bush’s “farewell” tour of Europe is a curiously low-key affair. His attendance at the European Union-U.S. summit in Slovenia produced neither rows nor enthusiasm. His meeting with Germany’s Angela Merkel was workmanlike diplomacy. And he goes now to Italy where he will likely get a warm welcome from Silvio Berlusconi, once again Italy’s quirkily right-wing prime minister, but a welcome lacking in any real political substance.
You might suppose that this is an improvement on the hatred that too often greeted Bush a few years ago throughout Europe — though not in countries like Georgia and Ukraine where he is a hero. It certainly is. And the reasons for it are encouraging — but still fragile.
First, the more sober Western European leaders have become alarmed at the rise of an aggressive anti-Americanism in their own societies. Often they encouraged it, but it now rampages around beyond their control. They don’t want to see it dictating policy and seriously undermining the transatlantic relationship. Thus, both Europeans and Americans spent a good deal of the summit stressing that the two sides of the Atlantic were indissolubly united by bonds of common values.
Second, almost all the central and east Europeans are worried about Russia and the cosy relationship developing between Russia and Germany–which they fear will be at their own expense, as so often in history. They remember–even if they do not often say this publicly–that the Bush administration has been firmly on their side ibn a series of issues from the Orange revolution in Ukraine to the recent NATO summit at which an alliance between the U.S. and countries like Poland forced a reluctant Western Europe to promise eventual admission to Georgia and Ukraine. And they worry that a U.S. administration friendlier to “Europe” will be less friendly to their half of it.
A third reason for this outbreak of Euro-American amity is that in his second term President Bush has moved to appease “Europe” on a range of formerly contentious issues. His rhetoric at least is now muted and nuanced in the best Parisian style. The U.S. is now more willing to sign onto the Kyoto process (though with significant qualifications, quietly expressed.) Mr. Bush embraced multilateralism as the way to solve the world’s problems. He stressed diplomacy — backed by sanctions if diplomacy failed — as the way to solve the Iranian crisis. And he has withdrawn all American objections to a separate European defense structure outside of NATO — perhaps the most dangerous little-known decision But what good came of it at last, as Little Peterkin asked in “After Blenheim.” There’s the difficulty. On the single most dangerous problem, Iran, there is really no sign of this diplomacy-sanctions combination working, however. That gives an unpleasantly nervous edge to the sense in Europe that Bush has abandoned the military option even if he keeps it on the table to pressure Tehran into getting rid of its nuclearization program. As the saying goes: there’s only one thing worse than not getting what you ask for, namely getting what you ask for.
Of course, it is possible Bush will surprise Europe on Iran — as he surprised them on the surge. (Now that the surge is plainly working, the Europeans have decided to lose interest in the topic.) But if people here believed that, Bush wouldn’t have got such a quiet reception. Finally, most Europeans, peoples as well as leaders, are already focussing on who the next American president will be and what he will be like. Given Bush’s unpopularity at home and abroad, most of them assume that he is bound to be an improvement on the present incumbent. That is far from certain. Though Obama and McCain are both closer to Europeans in policy than Bush is or used to be, that is no guarantee of harmony. Europeans who bitched at Bush were often pleased that he was taking care of problems that their own political establishments simply allowed to fester. A nuclear Iran is a far greater threat to Europe, East and West, than to the U.S. Add that rational fear to the growing nervousness of Europeans about Russia and Islamism, and you have a lot of problems piling up.
Bush will never be seen here as another Reagan, as he plainly hopes, but he may come to be seen as a better bet than a more “European” president.