Bush’s European Blind Spot

Why is the Bush administration so willing to antagonize Europe at a time when the continent’s global influence is growing so quickly?

Image: AP/Wide World Photos

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BERLIN — So far in its war on terrorism, the Bush administration has been shrewd in consistently urging us to take the long view. This emphasis may offer a handy fig leaf when troubling questions arise — about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, for example — but even critics have to admit it gives administration policy the appearance of being grounded in a larger context. Which raises a disturbing question: Why have Bush and his advisers, after a short turn as internationalists, so decisively spurned long-term considerations in relations with Europe?

The only plausible explanation is that the old Cold Warriors who give President Bush much of his advice are so used to seeing the Europeans as mere puppets for superpowers that they just can’t take them seriously as players in their own right. Unfortunately, the Europeans only encourage this view.

The continent’s leaders talked bravely about standing up to Slobodan Milosevic and halting the genocide in Bosnia, only to allow squabbling and inertia to reduce their efforts to impotence. More recently, proud European officials have talked about putting together a rapid-reaction military force of their own, to give them a modicum of true autonomy. Despite that talk, Europe’s governments seem years away from actually budgeting enough money to make it happen. Attempts to launch a European global-positioning satellite system, necessary if that European military force is to have real independence, are expected to go down in flames this month in Brussels.

But if Bush and his people were really taking a longer view, they would be looking past these missteps and would see a Europe inexorably growing economically stronger and more influential on the world stage. The EU may not become a full-fledged US rival, but it will be in a position to demand much more respect, both in actions and words, than it has so far received from the Bush administration.

The younger, up-and-coming European leaders now getting a lesson in what often feels to them like US arrogance are unlikely to put their experiences aside any time soon. That’s bad for US interests. With the exception of one spate of coalition-building just after the Sept. 11 tragedy, nearly everything the Bush administration has done has sent the message that it cares little what any other country thinks — and plans to care a good deal less in the future.

Take the administration’s recent decision to walk away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. It’s doubtful that many in Europe were uncertain about the motivations behind the White House decision. No technological gadgetry can make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete,” as President Reagan put it back in the “Star Wars” salad days. Nor can the vaunted missile shield offer any real sense of security against rogue attacks. What it can do, however, is discourage potential adversaries from going nuclear, even if US troops are on the move. In other words, a missile defense system would make it easier for the US to assert itself militarily.

This fits in nicely with the administration’s ongoing effort to distance itself from international treaties and bodies. Last March, the White House took a hit — domestically as well as internationally — when it announced its rejection of the Kyoto Protocols on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in Washington at the time for his first meeting with Bush, was also put in a terrible political bind as the result of what looked like clumsy timing.

But given several recent Bush administration actions, it now seems clear that the timing was premeditated, intended to send a message.

Last July in Bonn, Germany, the Europeans confounded many by leading the effort to cobble together an agreement on pushing the Kyoto agreement forward — without US participation. In response, the Bush administration announced it would present alternative proposals of its own at the next big climate-policy gathering in Marrakech, Morocco. None materialized.

Early last month, with anthrax fears spreading faster than anthrax spores, the Bush administration torpedoed a conference in Switzerland on enforcing the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, ratified by the United States and 143 other countries. The planned three-day meeting broke up after only one day when, as the Washington Post reported, the United States “stunned European allies by proposing to terminate the group’s mandate.” US representatives did, however, promise that the administration would “consult its allies” on the issue — at some point.

The Bush administration seems to have calculated that as the one global superpower, with more economic and military power to wield than any empire in world history, the US might as well dispense with any charades about power-sharing. The term “unilateralism,” often used to describe Bush’s approach, might in the end be woefully insufficient. Unilateral action is action by one side; Bush administration officials do not even seem to acknowledge the existence of other sides.

The best term to describe Bush administration policy may be New Imperialism. That does not mean that the White House actually wants to conquer new territories — no matter what some cynics might say about US plans to expand the war on terrorism. But in its insistence on removing any and all obstacles to its ability to wield power globally, without check or compromise, the administration seeks to establish its authority so overwhelmingly that other countries will be able to only watch and wait.

Of course, Bush still has a lot of time left in office, maybe even seven more years. On his visits to Europe last year, he did show an ability to reach beyond his own limited background and gain a sense not only of the existence of the rest of the world but of what reaching out to international friends actually means. But recent signs point to a return to the administration’s basic urge to consolidate geopolitical power, at all costs.

More and more, it looks like European sensibilities have repeatedly been trampled because that’s just what the Bush administration wants — to send a message that its power and authority dare not be questioned or challenged. No one can expect the Europeans to like that approach. How Europe’s leaders respond to that frustration may tell us a lot about how much their governments will be able to assert themselves to gain political maturity — as Europeans.


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