When George W. Bush visits Europe next week, the mood will be much friendlier than of late. Condoleezza Rice and even the normally blunt-speaking Donald Rumsfeld have prepared the president's way, conducting what by this administration's standards is a charm offensive on European capitals. And the Europeans seem quite willing to be charmed: They, too, are smiling sweetly. What has changed, all of a sudden? Perhaps less than you might think.
Of course, it is good that the United States and Europe are on better terms. Of course, it is desirable that they should cooperate, where they have foreign-policy goals in common (and they do have some in common). Still, nobody need get carried away. What continues to separate the United States and Europe is not just differences in style, much as these may infuriate both sides, but differences in substance—lots of them, and some that are intractable. Next week's speeches and handshakes might glide over that fact, but they will not change it.
On Europe's side, a few things have prompted this apparent warming of relations, as far as it goes. The first is simply that Bush remains in the White House. Most of Europe's governments wanted John Kerry to win; a few went so far as to make it obvious. Even Tony Blair, the Bush administration's closest ally, would have been delighted to see a Democrat elected. (Ideo- logically, Iraq notwithstanding, the prime minister and Bush are poles apart, and Bush is a perpetual embarrassment to Blair within his party.) But Bush will be around for another four years. Whether they like it or not, Europe's leaders will have to work with him. To some degree, they are just putting on a big false smile and steeling themselves for that ugly prospect.
Another main reason for the altered mood is the Iraqi election, which prompted a bigger shift than might have been guessed. Restoring relations with Europe was not much in the Bush administration's mind when it planned Iraq's electoral timetable. Building an autonomous nation, undermining the insurgents, and advancing the U.S. military exit were doubtless the immediate goals. But it is not just the insurgents whose position has been undermined by the emergence of a new democratic order in Iraq. The election's remarkable success—demonstrating the Iraqis' passionate desire for democracy, an opportunity that only the overthrow of Saddam Hussein could have given them—makes it far more difficult for Europe's war opponents to maintain their accustomed stance of moral superiority.
The election does not repair the broken justification for the war; it does not redeem the errors of postwar planning and execution; and, at least for now, it will do nothing to lighten America's military and fiscal burdens in Iraq. What it does do is make a certain kind of European smugness untenable.
The view that the war was a comprehensive moral failure no longer stands: Nobody who watched the scenes of Iraqis queuing to vote can any longer believe that. Going forward, Europe's objections to the war will therefore have to become a bit more complicated and a bit less confident. This course correction is well under way. Now that Iraq has a semi-legitimate semi-democratic government, standing aside from America's efforts to speed progress no longer looks so principled. More European countries, including even France, are now cooperating with the United States in the training of Iraqi security forces and in other ways.
Until just this week, it had looked as though the president's visit to Europe might be particularly ill-timed in one respect. On February 16, the Kyoto Protocol—the international agreement to curb emissions of greenhouse gases—formally went into effect. This treaty represents Europe's single greatest commitment to environmental probity. Under Bush, America has been a militant opponent of the whole approach. As a result, the United States has withdrawn from the treaty process and is having nothing to do with it. For Europe's America-bashers, this would have been a handy stick with which to beat the president on this trip, given those awkwardly favorable recent developments in Iraq.
Happily for the president, if not for the global environment, the Kyoto deal seems to be unraveling from the start. For instance, Britain's government is this very week engaging in an embarrassing row with the European Commission over the limits it will accept for carbon emissions under Europe's new, supposedly Kyoto-friendly, trading system for emissions permits. Having cast itself as a champion of the Kyoto approach to global warming, Britain is scrambling to ensure that its power plants and heavy industries do not actually have to do anything to comply with the new regime. Britain is not alone in this.
As the Kyoto treaty takes effect—if you can call this taking effect—it becomes increasingly clear that it is going to make little if any difference, and not just because the United States, along with heavy carbon-emitters such as China and India, is standing aside. For most of the countries that made much of their virtue in unveiling this new regime, it will be business as usual. Global warming will still be a point of contention in the president's meetings next week, but embarrassment and disarray among supposed Kyoto advocates will make things much easier for Bush.
Looking beyond next week's photo ops, global warming, paradoxically, is an issue on which you can expect some meeting of the minds. On one side is said to be the United States and its materialist, consumer-oriented, SUV-driving society, and on the other, Europe's wise environmental custodians who insist on recycled stationery. But guess what: The much-trumpeted differences are not so great after all. In some ways, it is a classic difference of style not substance.
For exactly the same reasons, Europe's governments are no more willing than America's to hobble economic growth and living standards in an effort to curb greenhouse gases. The same goes for the developing countries. That is the substance. On the other hand, it is America's style—or Bush's, at any rate—to come out and say that, and make no apology. Whereas it is Europe's style to pretend to be doing something, and especially to make a huge fuss about international cooperation, even if its cooperative efforts, like the Kyoto Protocol, do not in fact work.
Yet a meeting of the minds on global warming seems likely soon, because neither side can be happy with its present position. The Bush administration acknowledges, and even appears to believe, that policies to abate carbon emissions are going to be necessary: Certainly, America's big producers and industrial consumers of energy are beginning to make bets on that outcome by investing in low-carbon technologies. Europe, for its part, is seeing that it is going to have to think much more seriously about the costs of abatement, and about how to bear them efficiently and equitably, if it is to devise policies that will work. Despite appearances, the quarrel between America and Europe over global warming should not be so difficult to settle. The question is only whether it will be settled quickly enough and in the right way, so that the world moves promptly toward a more effective and intelligent global-warming policy.
The deep disagreements arise in other areas, where the attitudes and interests of Europe and the United States—as opposed merely to their preferred modes of posturing—genuinely diverge. Israel and Palestine are one such issue. For political and historical reasons, America and Europe line up on different sides of that seemingly insoluble dispute. If the current efforts for peace fail, which is all too likely, Israel-Palestine will continue to sour trans-Atlantic relations. That perennial aside, at the top of the list of new divisive questions stand Iran and China.
Simplifying, but not outrageously, America's instinct is to recognize and confront threats to its security; Europe's is to deny these threats for as long as possible and then appease. In the case of Iran and China, compounding that hardwired difference in attitudes is the matter of interests. Europe hopes (and it may be right) that America is at greater risk than itself from rogue regimes and sponsors of terrorism such as Iran. And Europe knows that if China should ever attack Taiwan, it will be the American military, not its own troops, that may very well be drawn into the fight.
So whereas America wants to confront Iran over its efforts to develop nuclear weapons, starting with a U.N. Security Council resolution and moving perhaps, in due course, to military action, Europe prefers to stick with its own—so far patently unsuccessful—diplomatic efforts. And Europe, over strenuous American objections, is preparing to relax its embargo on arms sales to China, while the United States first wants to see progress there on democracy and human rights. Each of these issues, if things go badly, will be at least as divisive for trans-Atlantic relations as the war in Iraq. Bear that in mind next week.