An ocean, and a world apart

Bush visits Europe this week amid a resurgence of the continent's skepticism over America's global role.

George Bush arrived Wednesday in Berlin at the start of a weeklong European tour, hoping to put the brakes on a continental drift that is pulling Washington apart from its closest allies over some of the administration's most highly prized goals.

Eight months after Europeans spilled onto the streets to express their sympathy and support for Americans in the wake of 9/11, they are once again adopting their earlier mood of skepticism about US actions in the world.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators voiced such doubts in Berlin on the eve of the president's arrival.

While the attacks on New York and Washington changed the world for many Americans, President Bush will find Europeans less traumatized, and more dubious about his war on terrorism.

Accustomed over the years to terrorism on their soil, both home-grown and imported, Europeans saw the destruction of the World Trade Center as "a larger and much nastier version of things we'd already known," says Guillaume Parmentier, head of the French Center on the US think tank.

When the dust settled and the emotion faded, "most Europeans felt that terrorism is a difficult problem, but they don't feel they are in a state of war against it," adds Bernhard May, an expert on US-European relations at the German Foreign Policy Society in Berlin.

That complicates Bush's task of rallying Europe behind his policy against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, especially if that policy turns out to include making war on Baghdad.

"Military action against Iraq is not justified as long as it is not certain that Saddam supports or shelters al Qaeda terrorists" said Peter Struck, parliamentary leader of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic party, on Wednesday.

Two world views

Evidence of such support has not yet emerged, and neither European governments nor their publics, have amalgamated the threat of terrorism and the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in the same way that Washington has.

"When we Europeans talk about the war on terrorism we look at Afghanistan and think things are going fairly well," says Dr. May. "But the Americans are looking at a different world," where the 'axis of evil' comprising North Korea, Iran, and Iraq combines terror threats with weapons of mass destruction, he adds.

"We are not talking to each other, we are just complaining about each other," May says of Europe and the US.

Europe's insistence on seeing evidence that Saddam Hussein possesses nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons before feeling threatened by Iraq has angered US leaders eager to take preemptive action.

The differing attitudes on either side of the Atlantic have something to do with Europe's traditional passiveness contrasted with a more activist American outlook, imbued with a sense of moral certainty.

But they also spring from different instincts. Europe's millennium-old history of warfare, and its efforts to keep the peace over the past 60 years through mutual cooperation, have taught European leaders the value of multilateralism.

From their perspective, the current US administration is dangerously unilateralist, putting US interests ahead of others regardless of the price. Washington's rejection of the Kyoto protocol to curb greenhouse gases, its contempt for the newly formed International Criminal Court and its reluctance to sign a treaty restricting biological weapons have fed such European fears over the past year.

Two recent US moves have infuriated European leaders again.

President Bush's decision to impose heavy tariffs on steel imports and his support of a farm bill offering billions of dollars in subsidies for American farmers gave the impression that the administration was putting the interests of certain US voters ahead of the general international interest in free trade.

"We strongly regretted this unilateralism, which runs contrary to a balanced and serene vision of the world," French President Jacques Chirac said last week after a meeting of European and Latin American leaders.

At another level, the growing gap in defense spending between Europe and America is carving a gap in perceptions about how to solve the world's problems, say some analysts.

Legislators in Washington, where Congress recently approved a $60 billion increase in Pentagon funding, find it easier to spend money on the military than on peaceful projects such as nation-building, foreign aid, or diplomatic emissaries.

"The exact opposite is the case in Europe," where defense spending has been falling since the end of the cold war, but where voters find funding for international organizations or aid more acceptable, points out Mr. Parmentier.

"If this goes on," he argues, "the Europeans will have an inbuilt interest in stressing civilian, non-confrontational resolutions to any crisis," because they are incapable of pursuing military solutions, "while the Americans will have an interest in stressing military means. That strengthens existing attitudes on both sides."

The missile-defense debate

That difference was clear in European reservations about Washington's decision to pursue plans for a national missile defense system, which required a rejection of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.

The fact that European doubters were wrong to forecast a resumption of the arms race has not dissuaded them from arguing against the US administration's confrontational approach to Iran, which the State Department this week branded "the most active state sponsor of terrorism."

Washington's main European allies favor a more conciliatory attitude, seeking to engage Tehran and encourage reformers there.

In the end, however, whether the issue be Iran, Iraq, the war on terrorism, or global warming, Europeans want most of all to be consulted.

"At some stage, the Americans will realize that to achieve their aims they need not just partners to do their bidding, but real allies," says Parmentier.

"And when they need allies," he says, "there aren't any others except the good old Europeans."

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