A clean slate of world leaders

A new set of political leaders could strengthen US-Europe ties and make their mark on the world.

They're called a "dream team" – new leaders in France, Britain, and Germany who just might restore greater unity within Europe and with the United States. That line-up has the potential to bring fresh inspiration to stale global problems, even as the US moves closer to choosing its new leader.

This has happened in transatlantic relations before. The 1980s was dominated by a new set of leaders: Britain's Margaret Thatcher, Germany's Helmut Kohl, France's François Mitterand, and America's Ronald Reagan. They did not share the same ideology, but they respected one another and agreed on some key issues, such as holding tough against the Soviet Union.

Together, they did much to end the cold war and boost economic growth. Individually, they brought their countries forward, especially Mrs. Thatcher, whose tough reforms transformed the British economy. These were political giants, needed at a time of economic and geopolitical pessimism.

Such is the mood today, as Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Nicolas Sarkozy, and British prime-minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown take the helm.

Key countries in Europe, still burdened by costly social welfare systems, are struggling to remain economically competitive in a freer global market. It's much harder for the European Union to move adroitly with 27 members, than with the 12 of two decades ago. And the war in Iraq has caused a deep rift between the US and much of Europe.

Europe's new team is more willing to work with the US, including the present administration. Ms. Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, has a certain understanding of George Bush's push for global democracy and has worked hard to repair severely frayed US-German ties. Mr. Sarkozy is an open admirer of US values – if not policies – and has likewise promised a more constructive relationship.

Less is known about the foreign-policy leanings of Mr. Brown, who later this month will succeed Tony Blair – much criticized by Britons over the Iraq war. Even were Brown to comparatively distance himself, it's hard to imagine the core US-British relationship changing.

It's not just the list of lingering global troubles that makes US-European cooperation so urgent. That list – terrorism and war, energy and environmental concerns, continued adjustment to globalization, and now a communist-style Russia without the Communist Party – would have been a challenge even for the 1980s team.

But unlike 20 years ago, US credibility and moral authority in the world is significantly damaged. Washington can't accomplish much alone, even if it wanted to.

A weak US needs strong allies more than ever. If the EU succeeds in uniting around a "mini treaty" to facilitate a more smoothly running Union, and if Sarkozy rejuvenates France with a sort-of Thatcher treatment, Washington would have its stronger partner.

Under these conditions, new leaders on both sides of the Atlantic could indeed make a mark. They might push hard for a Middle East peace settlement, or reduce global dependence on fossil fuels.

More likely, closer and smoother transatlantic relations will simply mean a better ability to handle immediate challenges. Even that would be cause for greater optimism.

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