Bush in Europe: new dialogue, old quarrels

Divisions remain over key issues with traditional allies, but the atmospherics changed.

As President Bush completes the leg of his trip focusing on traditional allies, he may well have changed the dynamic in US-European relations even if he couldn't overcome differences on key issues dividing one of the world's oldest geopolitical blocks.

For US officials, the trip has at least begun to focus the West on the one common value - spreading democracy - that underlies many of the issues the transatlantic alliance faces. European leaders, for their part, were ebullient about obviously warmer relations with Mr. Bush than at any time in his presidency, even before the Iraq war.

But three days of intense dialogue allowed continuing differences - on Iran, China, and global warming - to come out in the open. Indeed, that may be the trip's most lasting accomplishment: It put the bitterness over Iraq in the rearview mirror and returned relations to a more normal dialogue, where both accord and disagreement surface.

Still, it's unlikely that the visit did much to turn around a deeply anti-Bush European public. At best, says Franck Bozza, an events planner in Brussels, "some people might have gone from hostile to skeptical, but that's about it."

In perhaps a metaphor of how many people feel here, one young woman stood silent in a light snow outside the security perimeter several blocks from the salmon-colored palace where Bush was Wednesday. She wore a sweatshirt that bore a hand-lettered message: "Bring freedom and democracy to America."

White House officials say the president - who poked fun on several occasions at his low popularity in Europe - never intended for one trip to dramatically change perceptions. While they believe a good start was made, both over two days in Brussels and here with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, they add that the president sees working with Europe to build peace through democracy as a long-haul effort.

That perspective is evident in the focus Bush will place on Europe over the next several months. "We have to view this as at least a six-month effort, not as a one-week effort," says Ronald Asmus, executive director of the Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.

Pointing to two more trips Bush will make to Europe between now and July - to celebrate the end of World War II in Russia in May, and to attend the G-8 meeting in Britain in June - Mr. Asmus says: "All the problems and old differences won't be solved. But the way the White House has thought this out tells you how important it is to them."

Bush said in Brussels that this trip might be called his "listening tour," and the president labored to demonstrate, as he addressed issues of particular importance to Europeans, how he was incorporating what he was hearing.

IN GERMANY, Bush showed this in his answers to questions on Iran and global warming. In the Mainz press conference with Mr. Schröder, Bush became his most emphatic in stating and then repeating that, "for the sake of security and peace," Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. Earlier, a senior US official said that the onus in the proliferation issue needed to be on Iran, not on the rest of the world.

Apparently aware he is in a country where a recent poll showed that 70 percent of Germans believe Bush plans to attack Iran, the US president acknowledged his statement Tuesday that no options are off the table - but repeated that "diplomacy is just beginning."

He said his discussions with Europeans and with Schröder in particular on Iran had focused on "tactics." Then he proceeded to reveal one of them: that at least publicly, the US and the three European countries in talks with Iran will show a united front before the Iranians. "It's vital the Iranians hear the world in one voice," Bush said, "to convince the mullahs they need to give up their nuclear ambitions."

Still, Bush did not indicate the US would meet the European Union three - Germany, Britain, and France - on their desire that the US join them in talks with Tehran.

On global warming, the new modus operandi - it's pointless to go over old quarrels, so let's see where we agree - was also on display. Bush said: "The US cares about the quality of our air," and pointed out that the US is spending almost $6 billion annually to develop "new technologies" to help address climate change, an issue at the top of many Europeans' concerns.

On China, Bush told European leaders that the US Congress would have a hard time with any decision by the EU to lift its embargo on arms sales to China. He also expressed to leaders, in particular French President Jacques Chirac, that the US worries about arms sales that could threaten Taiwan and US troops stationed in Asia.

For their part, European leaders expressed understanding of US concerns, while giving no indication they would not proceed with an almost certain lifting of the arms-sales ban by June.

Another area of "normal" friction between the US and Europe didn't even surface at the meetings, at least not publicly, but did rear its head. Even as Bush and Schröder were lauding a "new era in transatlantic cooperation," European business dailies reported that Britain, France, and Germany are pressuring the Polish government to replace the state-controlled airlines' aging fleet with European Airbuses - not Boeings.

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