As Bush launches farewell tour, Europe warms up

The US-German relationship is perhaps the clearest example of improving ties since the Iraq war began.

Ron Edmonds/AP
Europe-bound: President Bush left the White House June 9 for a summit and one-on-one talks with leaders in France, Germany, and Italy.
SOURCE: British Council, March 2008./RICH CLABAUGH–STAFF

It's au revoir, auf Wiedersehen, and arrivederci for George W. Bush during an eight-day final bow across Europe, starting with a European Union summit in Slovenia Tuesday.

During Mr. Bush's presidency, attitudes among America's main allies swung sharply pro then con – though now show some signs of a return to normalcy and a renewed recognition of the role the US plays in Europe and the West, many experts here say.

The trip takes place amid what one German official calls an "astounding" interest in the US presidential elections, and a palpable readiness for change at the top in Washington.

Goodbyes to Angela Merkel in Berlin, Silvio Berlusconi in Rome, and Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, where Bush will push hard for help at a June 12 Afghan donor conference – will showcase Bush's newly affirmative relations with key heads of state here.

"The likelihood of major progress on any significant issue in play is pretty low," says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "But US-European relations are coming around. If you told me three or even two years ago that Bush would go to Germany in 2008 and get a positive response, I wouldn't have believed it."

Bush touches down Tuesday in Germany, where Chancellor Merkel will host him for dinner at a small castle outside Berlin. For much of the past six years, nearly sacrosanct US-German relations were in low ebb. Though some 200,000 Germans rallied in support of the US at the famed Brandenburg Gate after 9/11, goodwill turned to disdain after the Iraq invasion. The problem went far past the image of America, to serious and widespread disagreement with US policy on the Continent.

It was what author and longtime Europe-watcher Elizabeth Pond termed the "near death" of the transatlantic alliance in her 2003 book.

Today, however, what appeared to be an "unbridgeable gap" has been replaced by "a spirit of calm, pragmatic cooperation," says Constanze Stelzenmuller of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. In Europe there's a "rational realization that the areas of agreement are substantial, and that the Europeans and the Americans will often, but not always, need each other."

'The West needs US leadership'

The US elections, the crisis in Iraq and Afghanistan, and worry about chaos ranging from terrorism to natural disasters to financial markets has raised anew a discourse in Europe's political class about America's role. Says a longtime German insider, "The political class realizes the West needs US leadership, despite what protesters say. Even after the US screw-up in the Middle East they feel the US is needed there."

"Under [former Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder, you did hear about Europe as a counterweight to the US, but not now. Europe is too divided," says Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The West is a phenomenon that only works with American leadership. We can't solve Kosovo, Iran, and the Middle East without Washington."

But whether America can lead affirmatively under the next administration, say many experts here, depends in part on the disposition in Washington on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many Germans and Europeans are concerned about an immediate US withdrawal from Iraq. "Europeans want America to stay in Iraq until a withdrawal is possible without creating a further civil war ... We are a little concerned about a withdrawal leading to chaos," says Dr. Riecke.

A US foreign policy that is consultative and less "arrogant" – a main European criticism – is desired. Diplomatic sources say it would be extremely ameliorative for Bush while in Europe to admit mistakes as well as successes, and even to signal that no unilateral attack on Iran will take place. Europe's need for the US is pragmatic. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said this spring in an interview that "the magic is gone" in the European view of Washington, though other leaders have said this can change.

Bush's low-key whirlwind swan song contains few hard policy "deliverables," White House aides say. He will take up common interests. Along with the Afghan mission, Bush will push for European resolve on Iran's nuclear program, and help for Kosovo.

He's not expected, however, to offer new initiatives on climate change, a main European concern. Europeans want developed nations to take greater financial responsibility and initiative for emissions in nations like India and China; the White House, which has not altered its views ahead of a December summit in Poznan, Poland, desires more initiative in those states.

US credited for supporting E. Europe

Bush is seen as the least popular US president in modern Germany. US presidents from John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are remembered for giving stirring speeches amid cheering throngs and flinging themselves into crowds to shake hands.

Bush has, partly due to increased security after 9/11, been in an isolated bubble, and his visits are discussed more in terms of interrupted traffic in large towns. In coverage of a 2006 speech in Stralsund, Germany, local media pointed out that the audience was preselected from out of town, and that locals were excluded. "It was a show like something out of the old East Germany," says one source.

One little-mentioned credit given here to the Bush policy on Europe is the friendly interest shown by the State Department to the new democracies of Eastern Europe. Initially, the issue got botched in Washington. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's terming of a "new Europe" (Poland, the Baltics, former Warsaw Pact states aiding in the war on terror) and an "old Europe" (mainly France and Germany, which questioned Washington on Iraq) was divisive.

"Rumsfeld's phrasing, playing off new and old, was absolutely divisive here," says Bastian Hermisson of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a Green Party think tank. "But over time, the US valuing of Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltics, made those states feel self-confident. It had the effect of shaking us up and making us aware that new states had their own interests and importance."

Europeans embrace Obama's hope

There's a widespread fascination here with the US presidential race – particularly the candidacy of Barack Obama, whose persona Europeans appear to adore. European foreign ministries are in touch with both McCain and Obama camps, sources say.

At a speech at Harvard, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked the audience rhetorically if the US and Europe can have better transatlantic relations, and then said, reiterating the Obama campaign mantra, "Yes, we can!"

"The interest in the US election is overwhelming," says Mr. Hermission. "And if it is a program on Obama, there are no empty seats. It makes me believe there is a desire in the public for a resurgence of what we call the 'good America.' There's hope in the response I see."

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