February 22, 2005 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

What the Prez Can Do in Europe

President Bush wings his way to Europe this week for one of the most important trips of his presidency - patching things up with the Europeans after four stormy years.

Like it or not, Europe is playing an increasingly important role in international affairs. And while America can achieve a lot by itself, we can achieve more with the right partners. Unfortunately, despite charm offensives by both sides, President Bush's visit with French, British, German and NATO leaders won't be a walk in the park.

And even though both Europeans and Americans really are looking for a fresh start, it's not "just Iraq." The United States and Europe strongly disagree on several burning issues:

* Iran is now the most contentious issue in the trans-Atlantic relationship. The European Union is using diplomatic niceties and a basket full of trade and other goodies to try to entice Tehran back from the nuclear (weapons) abyss.

The Bush administration's been willing to let Europe give diplomacy a chance here, but wants agreement on a backup plan. The president will likely press the French, Germans and British for promises to support seeking U.N. economic sanctions to turn up the heat on Iran. * The EU is also expected to lift the 1989 Tiananmen Square arms embargo against China by mid-year. Dumping the embargo will allow China to buy weapons from European dealers that would aid in China's rapid military buildup.

Bush will likely point out that 1) China's human-rights situation - the rationale for the ban - hasn't improved since 1989, and 2) Europe's decision undermines U.S. security interests in the Pacific, especially across the Taiwan Strait. The effects could be, at the very least, deeply destabilizing.

* Driven by the French Gaullist desires to create separate European security institutions that exclude the Americans, the EU is (slowly) developing its own defense force, which may rival (or replace) American-led NATO at some point in the future.

The president should emphasize NATO's importance. The first half of the 20th century saw Europe nearly destroy itself; the second half of the century saw freedom triumph. The NATO alliance made the difference. In the interests of future allied cooperation, Bush can say, any European defense force should come under NATO's umbrella for both planning and operational purposes.

* Iraq will certainly come up. The deep divisions of the past remain a fact; the best bet for unity may come from a focus on building Iraqi democracy.

But, while 12 EU nations have troops on the ground in Iraq now, more European forces are unlikely. Any progress will come in the form of new EU help in reconstruction, humanitarian efforts and in training new Iraqi police.

Underlying all these flashpoints of disagreement are profound philosophical differences on foreign policy, which put real limits on U.S.-European cooperation.

America's foreign-policy stance has been to solve the world's problems multilaterally if possible, and unilaterally if necessary. Europe, as it has moved toward the European Union, has embraced multlilateralism. The Europeans simply don't see the logic or necessity of unilateral actions.

They're also less inclined to advance freedom and democracy abroad if it means undermining stability and/or their own economic interests. In Europe's eyes, diplomatic engagement trumps confrontation to a degree that strikes many Americans as naive, if not foolish.

All this makes finding common solutions to solving common problems more difficult, but not impossible. Europe seems willing to work with a strong American president, but is looking for one who'll listen to their views for achieving the common good.

Europeans are hoping this visit gives them a "kinder, gentler" George W. Bush. They're hoping for a repeat of President Ronald Reagan's second term, rather than of W's first.

Reagan's first term was also controversial with Europe - but his second four years, which included the 1988 withdrawal of 20-plus Soviet divisions from Europe, is seen as a great success. Europeans believe this resulted from the Gipper's willingness to compromise, not solely his toughness. And that's what they want from Bush.

So the president does some good simply by showing up: Making his first trip abroad after his re-election to Europe is an important symbol of Bush's willingness to make amends.

Finding harmony with Europe is worth a lot of effort. Protecting and advancing U.S. interests is the president's top priority, but trans-Atlantic cooperation can save American time, money and effort in dealing with nasty international problems.

Neither the Americans nor the Europeans are likely to achieve all they had hoped for this week, but consultation, coordination and cooperation is an important first step in improving the relationship.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post