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U.S.: Cautious Optimism Awaits Rice on Maiden European Tour

  • Jeffrey Donovan --> U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with President Bush (AFP) The United States and Europe remain bitterly divided over key global issues, including the Iraq conflict, climate change, the war on terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. Nonetheless, February looks set to be a time of symbolic reconciliation in the strained trans-Atlantic relationship. Later this month, U.S. President George W. Bush is due to visit Europe in the first trip abroad of his second term. And tomorrow, new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to arrive in London at the start of a tour across Europe that will also include a stop in Israel. Rice's visit is sure to see both sides pledging to improve relations. But will it be enough to bridge the growing gap between Europe and Washington?

Prague, 3 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In many ways, Europeans have come to see Condoleezza Rice as the embodiment of everything they dislike about U.S. foreign policy under President George W. Bush.
As national security adviser in the first Bush administration, Rice is thought to have been a key architect of the controversial pre-emptive war doctrine used to justify the war in Iraq. Rice is also seen as a vital force behind Bush's unilateralist approach and a source of anti-French sentiment.

Andre Fontaine, former editor of the Parisian daily "Le Monde" and a veteran French commentator on foreign affairs, says Rice "seemed especially hostile to the French position. In private talks with French diplomats, she has been even more aggressive."

But now -- as the first black female to become America's top diplomat -- Rice faces the difficult task of winning over skeptical hearts and minds on her maiden voyage to Europe as secretary of state. She will also be looking to lay the groundwork for Bush's European visit later this month.

The weeklong, eight-nation trip begins in London tomorrow and includes stops in Berlin and Paris, as well as Israel and the West Bank. The Middle East conflict, Iraq and Iran are likely to be at the top of the agenda.

But it is the strained trans-Atlantic relationship that is at the heart of all three issues. Rice is set to address that delicate matter in what her spokesman, Richard Boucher, says will be a major speech in Paris on 8 February.

Rice has vowed a fresh start in the trans-Atlantic relationship, saying last month that "now is the time for diplomacy."

Europe also appears eager for improvement. As Fontaine recalls, French President Jacques Chirac even phoned Bush to congratulate him last week on what he called Iraq's successful elections.

"Well, I think on both sides, they are looking to try to improve the relationship, which was completely blocked," Fontaine says. "And I think the fact that Condi Rice comes to Paris, when she has been described as the most anti-French in the present administration -- I think it's meaningful."

Europeans are eager to see whether the second Bush administration will offer a change in approach on foreign policy. They want engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for the United States to refrain from new military interventions, such as in Iran, which America accuses of secretly seeking nuclear arms.

Stephen Szabo, a scholar of U.S.-European relations at Johns Hopkins University's Bologna Center in Italy, also believes both sides are ready for a change.

"I think the Bush administration is under a lot of limits on what it can do in foreign policy now -- not only with the situation in Iraq, but also the situation at home in terms of budget deficits, trade deficits, growing opposition to American policy in a lot of areas," he says. "So I think the Bush administration is looking for allies. It doesn't feel quite as unconstrained as it did during the first administration, and I think there's a little bit less revolutionary zeal. And I think they would like to see a more interest-based, realistic relationship with the Europeans. I think the Europeans feel the same way."

In his recent book "Parting Ways," Szabo argues that U.S.-European relations will never again be what they were during the Cold War, when strategic interests forced Europeans to defer to American decisions. He says the emerging relationship will be based more on ad hoc agreements and will contain disagreements, some of them bitter.

Nonetheless, Szabo says Europeans have reason to be heartened by Rice's appointment to succeed Colin Powell.

"First of all, Rice knows Europe pretty well -- she knows Russia very well," Szabo says. "She was involved very much during the 'Two-Plus-Four' negotiations for German unification. She also has the confidence of the president, which Powell didn't have. I think that means that when she speaks for U.S. policy, that she will be taken more seriously perhaps than Powell, who tended to say things the Europeans liked -- but the Europeans also realized he didn't have a lot of influence in the administration."

Szabo adds that Europeans are also pleased with Rice's appointment of Robert Zoellick, the former chief U.S. trade envoy, as her deputy. He says Europeans respect Zoellick as a clear-eyed realist rather than a neo-conservative idealist of the kind that dominated policy during the first Bush term.

He says Rice has made other similar appointments that encourage Europeans that U.S. foreign policy might be changing course.

Still, he adds that concerns remain high in Europe that America may again resort to force as a policy instrument.

"Germans tended [before the Iraq war] to give Americans the benefit of the doubt. Since Iraq, they tend to assume the worst, [with] almost any policy, and hope things aren't as bad as they assume they are," Szabo says. "But on Iran, for example, you see immediately the sort of worst kind of motivations being ascribed to the Bush administration and to the U.S., and a great deal of fear and suspicion. I think American credibility is at an all-time low, and it's going to take a while for it to rebuild."

Ironically, Rice could yet play a central role in that rebuilding.

Rice grew up in the shadow of racial segregation in the southern U.S. state of Alabama. She knew two of four black girls who were killed in 1963 by members of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group.

Fontaine visited Rice's hometown of Birmingham shortly after that tragedy.

"Of course, the fact that she's black and a woman has at least led a number of commentators to write about the meaning of such a promotion -- to see her appointed as secretary of state," Fontaine says. "Well, I think there is some admiration, the fact that [the secretary of state is] somebody coming from Birmingham, Alabama. It brings a positive image of the U.S., of course."

Rice's trip will also include stops in Poland and Italy, both key allies in the Iraq war, as well as a visit with officials in Luxembourg, which holds the current European Union presidency, and talks with NATO officials in Brussels.