Bush holds course, world adjusts
At G-8 summit, it began to sink in that Clinton isn't president.
WASHINGTON — It's one of the most unusual aspects of George W. Bush's foreign policy: So far, he seems to be making more progress with his nation's greatest former adversary, Russia, than with many of its long-standing European friends.
Just look at the results of last weekend's Group of Eight summit. Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised and pleased administration officials by agreeing to talk about deployment of missile defenses, in concert with big cuts in nuclear weapons. European leaders, by contrast, kept hammering at the US for its refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas emissions.
Part of this turnabout may be tactical. Whether Mr. Putin is really Mr. Bush's soulmate, and agrees to defensive deployments, remains to be seen.
But it is also evidence of changes in world power. As it becomes economically integrated, Europe is speaking with a single voice - and challenging the longtime leader of what used to be called "the free world." Russia, however, is integrated with nothing but debt. Putin seems enough of a realist to look for aid wherever he can find it.
"I think it is in Russia's interest to try and pursue some sort of agreed framework on defenses and warhead cuts," says Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They have made the calculation that the US is going to move forward with some sort of [defensive] deployment."
Arguably, then, the Bush administration has entered a new phase in its relations with the rest of the globe. It's beginning to sink in to at least some foreign leaders that Bill Clinton really isn't president anymore, and that no amount of hand-wringing will bring him back.
For better or worse, Bush is in charge in the White House, and it is his less-internationalist, more-unilateral approach to the world that they will have to deal with.
Change of tone
To some extent this realization was reflected in a change of tone at the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy.
Before the meeting many European leaders vowed to press their objections to US policies at the summit - particularly in regards to the US refusal to go along with the Kyoto pact.
And press them they did. They reiterated the need to adhere to Kyoto targets for the reduction of greenhouse emissions, among other things.
But at the same time, they said they felt that Bush paid them more deference. He sought out their opinions about Russia prior to his Sunday meeting with Putin. He seemed more knowledgeable about issues, they said.
"We were all pleased by his new orientation," said French President Jacques Chirac following the meeting.
Of course, this is just the sort of dynamic that Bush has used to successful effect back home.
Talk nicely with your opponents. Invite them to lunch. Nod when hearing their views. And then, compromise only when absolutely necessary. That's how Bush got his big tax cut passed.
That's not an approach Europe is used to. At least, not lately - as economic integration has progressed, European leaders and citizens have become increasingly comfortable with the idea of ceding some sovereignty to the internationalist European Union whole.
And why not? Separately, they are all, by US standards, small markets with small military forces. Together, they are an economic entity that could rival the US.
Increasingly, they are restive about US domination of security decisions in NATO - although a truly integrated European military force alongside NATO has proved difficult to organize.
Thus compromise has become part of Europe's geopolitical culture, whereas for the US, its status as the world's only superpower can make it difficult for leaders to see why they need to compromise.
Then there is Russia. It is a proud nation playing a weak hand. In agreeing to at least enter discussions about missile defense, Putin has done his US counterpart a big favor.
A conciliatory effect
The very existence of US- Russian talks on missile defense is likely to mute some of the opposition to Bush's defense plans in both the US and Europe.
Democratic party leaders in Washington, for instance, have already approved of the talks, saying they hold out hope that any US missile shield won't be deployed in a geopolitically destabilizing manner.
Perhaps Putin is just playing for time, and in the end will still balk at Bush's plans. Or perhaps, facing the reality that his nation cannot afford another arms race, he hopes for aid or other considerations in return.
Says Alexander Zhilin, a retired army colonel and military analyst with the independent Institute of Applied Sciences in Moscow: "Putin has decided compromise is a better option."
Fred Weir contributed to this report from Moscow.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor