Why Europe loves to lecture US

Bush will hear chiding as he returns to Europe. His only solace: So has virtually every president since World War II.

President Bush returns to Europe this week, and the forecast for his six-day trip sounds like anything but a vacation: a 100 percent chance of a chilly reception, with intermittent periods of pointed complaint.

As he bounces from tea with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, to a meeting of developed-country leaders in Genoa, Italy, to an audience with Pope John Paul II in Rome, Mr. Bush is likely to get an earful from some global peers about their dislike of an array of US policies. They're outraged about his rejection of the Kyoto treaty on global warming, uneasy about his continued push for missile defense, and unconvinced about the morality of capital punishment.

Their objections are far from frivolous. But at some point in their time in office, virtually every US president of the post-World War II era has been lectured in a similar manner. It is a role Europe loves to play: the Old World sophisticate telling the bumptious American what is wrong with his actions, in precise detail.

The cold war quieted some of this natural fractiousness. But in the new millennium the lid is off, and in virtually every European leader there now seems to live a bit of the famously acerbic French leader Charles de Gaulle.

"They used to need us to defend them against the Soviet Union," says Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who focuses on international political affairs. "That's gone now - they are freer to express their feelings."

How the first trip went

To some extent, Bush has already been initiated in European attitudes, and vice versa. His trip last month to a US-EU summit was his first opportunity to meet European leaders on a personal basis and stomp his boots on the world stage.

That visit went well, according to White House officials. Bush did not, in the words of one official briefer, come off like a "shallow, arrogant, gun-toting Texas buffoon."

But neither did he conjugate Latin verbs for the crowd's amusement. According to some US analysts, he seemed simply friendly, well-briefed, and competent enough.

"Although I think he met that minimal standard, there's still a long way to go, not only vis-a-vis the leaders he's going to meet with, but particularly vis-a-vis European public opinion and the press," says Philip Gordon, senior fellow and director of the Center on the United States and France at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

And on this trip, which includes his first visit to the G-8 meeting of world industrialized nations, Bush is likely to face more concerted challenges.

Britain's Tony Blair, Germany's Gerhard Schroder, and other Europeans have already talked about presenting a united front in an attempt to get Bush to soften his opposition to the Kyoto treaty's limits on greenhouse gases. Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Bush will have a one-on-one meeting at the Genoa summit, has signed a treaty with China that, among other things, denounces Bush's missile-defense plans.

Protesters are already gathering. Thousands are expected in Genoa. But if protester chants filter into his bedroom, Bush can at least take solace in the fact that he is not the first US leader to be so denounced. As Mr. de Gaulle once said, "You may be sure that the Americans will commit all the stupidities they can think of, plus some that are beyond imagination."

Personality is part of the reason for this traditional tension. European leaders are usually products of the nation's best schools, and are either intellectuals or have intellectual pretensions.

US leaders go to good schools too - Bush went to Harvard and Yale. But American politics demands of its presidents a certain common man, pro-pork-rind touch that is unknown in Europe.

The late French leader Francois Mitterand was such a gourmand that one of his last meals included a rare, legally protected songbird that was an historic dish of kings. Ronald Reagan's favorite food? Macaroni and cheese, eaten off trays in front of the TV.

Nor do trends in US and European politics often match. Bill Clinton was generally well received in Europe, in part because his center-left positions matched the so-called "Third Way" style of Laborite Tony Blair and other leftish European leaders. Bush, by contrast, might find conservative kinship with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, but few others.

Fallout from World War II, cold war

Then there is what from the US side looks like a European tradition: resentment. The New World saved the Old in World War II, but in so doing, it forced reluctant Europeans to forgo most of their colonial empires and supplanted Britain and other powers as the policeman of the globe.

It was US power that eventually helped win the cold war, but at the price of such impositions as the controversial deployment of American intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe during the Carter and Reagan years.

European leaders have long wanted a greater say in overall world affairs, and, with the rise of the European Union, they are beginning to get it. Will the complaints stop? That's as doubtful as a full US pullout from the Balkans.

"The classic rap is that when the US leaders go too far forward, they are being pushy," says Philip Gordon of Brookings. "but when they slow down they are failing to lead."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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