Why Bush should play ball with the Europeans

Just as President Bush now needs to be more accommodating of Democrats on Capitol Hill, so too does he need to be more diplomatic and flexible in Washington's ever-important relationship with Europe.

This fact is being made quite evident during the president's current five-country European tour. It is, after all, in Western Europe - the US's oldest and firmest ally on the world scene - that the president's earlier preference for a totally "go it alone" foreign policy is now being most starkly challenged.

The Europeans bring plenty of economic and political muscle to their relationship with Washington. They flexed that muscle a little in the spring, when, in secret ballots, many European powers voted the US out of key UN committees dealing with human rights and narcotics. Now, if Mr. Bush wants their cooperation on any one of a range of important issues - from Iraq policy, to trade, to strategic planning issues in the Balkans or Eastern Europe - he will have to show some flexibility toward their views on the environment and arms control. He cannot, as adviser Ken Adelman said he had earlier hoped he could do, merely "go through the motions of consulting" with the European allies.

One significant detail about this trip: Bush is visiting Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Poland, and Slovenia. Sure, he has good reasons for going to each of them. But can you imagine how officials in Britain, France, or Germany feel about an itinerary that seems designed to keep the president away from any country that considers itself anything like the geopolitical equal of the United States?

The reelection in Britain last week of the "New Labour" Tony Blair changed nothing significant in the governance of that country. Elsewhere in Europe, there are a couple of countries that - unlike Britain, France, Germany, and a host of others - are ruled by avowedly right-of-center parties.

But on two key issues, Europeans in general, including even most of those on the "right," have very different views from those considered mainstream in the United States. At the level of domestic politics, Europeans have a far more benign and welcoming view of government than most Americans. (In the British elections, the Liberal Democrats managed to increase their showing in Parliament - even though they openly urged increasing taxes to pay for improved public services!)

In foreign policy, meanwhile, Europeans tend to place far more reliance than Americans on negotiation, dealmaking, and multilateralism in world affairs. Large numbers of Americans, including national legislators, still seem to cherish an illusion of national self-sufficiency that Europeans find either touchingly naive, unfathomable - or distinctly destabilizing.

I'll admit my own biases in these European-American differences. I grew up in the Britain of the caring welfare state and of strong engagement in the United Nations - and along with Britons of nearly all political views I still cherish the ideals embodied in those policies.

Here in the United States, meanwhile, the list of issues on which Congress has expressed a preference to "go it alone" is lengthy - and this has been the case for many years, beginning even before the current president took office. International treaties to ban nuclear tests and landmines, and to establish an International Criminal Court, as well as the currently prominent Kyoto treaty on environmental protection - all these languished unratified in the Senate long before last January.

Until last January, however, Capitol Hill could indulge its preference for isolationism, while knowing that the current incumbent in the White House, of whichever party, would still be working hard at keeping relations sweet with the allies. There was sort of a balance.

What has changed in the past few months is that the "countervailing" pressure from the White House switched direction. The president suddenly appeared to be sharing rather than countering Congress's isolationist worldview. Things seemed set for a nearly unmediated clash between congressional isolationism and the allies' very real needs for continued and sensitive American engagement in world affairs.

Things seemed set for a clash, that is, until two things happened: Democratic leader Tom Daschle took over the Senate, if only by a hair - and President Bush got his first, firsthand taste of the skill, flexibility, and convincing arguments of Europe's top leaders and diplomats.

Well, let's hope the latter is happening as you read this. Because if the Bush White House is still set on a collision course with Western Europe, then there's precious little that Mr. Daschle - or even longtime US ally Mr. Blair - can do to mediate that one!

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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