Wealth of Nations February 2005

Are America and Europe Now Friends? Maybe Not for Long

What separates the U.S. and Europe is not just differences in style, but differences in substance—some that are intractable.

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.

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