Next week, President Bush visits Europe on a political peacemaking mission. He's trying to repair a vital relationship that's been deeply shaken by differences over the Iraq war.
What he and his fellow heads of state should consider, however, is what happens when the next "Iraq war" comes along? Will the world's two most influential democratic powers be in any better position to handle the next big dispute?
The transatlantic alliance has been tested before. During the 1980s, for instance, West Germany erupted in protest over NATO's deployment of short-range nuclear missiles.
No issue, however, has caused such damage in contemporary US-European relations as Iraq. The invasion occurred nearly two years ago, and today only 11 percent of Germans and French (among Washington's harshest judges) approve of Bush's international policies, according to a survey just released by the German Marshall Fund. Still, countries like Poland, Italy, and Ukraine did send troops, and following the Iraqi vote last month, Europe as a whole looks ready to do more for the now fledgling democracy.
That divisions have yet to be smoothed over, however, is illustrated by the fact that President Bush's trip is designed to avoid protests. And in sending his new secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, on an olive-branch tour of Europe earlier this month, Mr. Bush acknowledges that the US has its diplomatic work cut out for it. He'll continue that work when he meets face-to-face with his sharpest critics, France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schröder, and participates in NATO and European Union summits.
In his speeches, one can expect Bush to reiterate his inaugural theme of spreading freedom in the world. But being on the EU's turf, he would do well to also thank the Europeans for their groundbreaking work in bringing Central and Eastern Europe into the EU's democratic fold, and using the magnet of EU membership (or close ties) to encourage democracy in the Balkans, Turkey, and Ukraine.
Bush's rhetorical strokes, while good and necessary, are probably not enough to get the European-US relationship back on track - or prepare it for the next gathering storm, such as Iran or Syria. So what's needed?
Setting off a diplomatic tremor, Chancellor Schröder has suggested a high-level review of the transatlantic relationship, including NATO, which he describes as "no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies." The Iraq invasion, for instance, never came before NATO.
Schröder points out the obvious, that no formal set-up between the US and Europe provides for consistent dialogue on political and security issues together. But it's hard to imagine that rearranging the organizational furniture, as the German chancellor implies, would do much good. Parties can find a way to talk when they want to, and as former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once observed, it's not as if the EU (now at 25 members and counting) speaks with one voice. "When I want to call Europe, what number do I ring?" Mr. Kissinger is said to have asked.
But the chancellor has a point. The political and security landscape has radically changed - in Europe and the world. As it expands, the EU is growing in political and economic strength. And while a wobbly NATO tried to get its bearings in the post cold-war 1990s, it's got some points on the compass to steer by now - namely, the global threat of weapons of mass destruction and Islamist terrorism.
Rather than coming up with an EU-NATO crossbreed, as some experts suggest, perhaps the best course is simply a greater acceptance of differences on both sides of the Atlantic, and greater coordination and consultation in areas of common interest.
Given two world wars played out on their soil, Europeans' discomfort with the projection of military power is understandable. And considering the growing EU web, so, too, is their emphasis on multilateralism. These differences reinforce the old division of labor: Europe wields diplomatic "soft power" backed up by America's military "hard power." Iraq pitted those two strengths against each other. In future disputes, they can be used more effectively with each other.