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U.S./Russia: Will Weekend Handshakes, Summit Smiles Signal Healing In Trans-Atlantic, Trans-European Rifts?

  • Jeremy Bransten

St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations this weekend will mark the first time since the end of the war in Iraq that the leaders of Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and the United States will find themselves at the same forum, RFE/RL reports. The leaders will then travel to Evian, France, for another joint appearance at this year's G-8 summit. Do the meetings signal an end to the trans-Atlantic and trans-European rifts over Iraq, or has too much damage been done to be repaired so quickly?

Prague, 28 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Like Kremlinologists of bygone days, journalists and political scientists will be taking the measure of every handshake and declaration at this weekend's international summits in St. Petersburg and Evian, France.

The focus will not be so much on substance as on style. That is because this weekend's meetings will be the first time the leaders of the major European powers, Russia and the United States have sat down together since the end of the divisive Iraq war.

Although deep differences of opinion remain on the war and other issues, and no one expects them to be resolved in two days, everyone will be watching for signs that there is a political willingness on both sides of the Atlantic to mend strained relations.

Bernhard May, head of the trans-Atlantic relations program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, spoke to RFE/RL about the upcoming meetings.

"The meetings of the leaders are, first of all, very important and a good opportunity that should not be missed to move towards each other because, after all, on both sides of the Atlantic, people are realizing that there are important issues those leaders have to discuss and if governments are not talking to each other, nobody is really benefiting from this short-sighted behavior on the part of too many governments, unfortunately. So it's good news that those leaders have to meet in St. Petersburg and in France," May said.

In the wake of the U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq and the sidelining of the United Nations, world leaders have much to talk about. May says the future role of the United States in world affairs is the central question on everyone's mind and that the weekend summits may provide a forum to start discussing the issue.

"The more profound and difficult question is what kind of role is the United States willing to play in the world order and what kind of world order are we talking about? Obviously, it cannot be accepted by the rest of the world that the United States is telling the world what it has to do. This kind of unilateral approach is not to the advantage of the United States either. On the other hand, the Europeans maybe have to think how they can come up with new proposals, how they see the role of Europe in a changing world," May says.

That thought is echoed by political scientist Aleksandr Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Institute for Strategic Assessments.

"The world is changing. The world is changing very rapidly. We live in a period that is already being called a period of 'compressed history,' and we have to react quickly to these changes. We need a new role for the UN, to figure out what the UN lacks for the fight against terrorism, what we need to do together, what the role of the United States will be and how to respond to new challenges while remaining within the boundaries of international law, how to expand this law, how to modernize it. It's clear to me that everything has to be expanded and modernized, including our current concept of state sovereignty," Konovalov says.

Of course, it may be a challenge for U.S. President George W. Bush to have fruitful discussions with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder given the level of personal animosity that still hangs in the air. Chirac, in an interview with the "Financial Times" of London this week, said he remains -- in his words -- "struck by the level of hostility coming out of Washington."

Bush also has let it be known through aides that the German leader is viewed with equal disdain at the White House. But analyst May says that, despite these personal antipathies, the United States appears keen to restore good working contacts at lower levels.

"What we are told by Americans is that several high-ranking members of the Bush administration, including the president, are so angry that it will be very, very difficult to go back to business as usual between President Bush and Chancellor Schroeder and therefore, what we are looking forward to and what we are hoping for is that the rest of the team will work much better together. And, of course, there is good news. [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell just recently came to Berlin, and he was working together quite well with [German] Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. But even our minister of the interior, Otto Schilly, is working closely together with [U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft," Konovalov says.

Divisions across the Atlantic are not the only rifts opened by the Iraq war. The European Union also emerged scarred from the conflict, when Spain, Britain, Denmark, Italy and most of the future EU members in Central and Eastern Europe sided with the United States against Paris and Berlin.

This gulf has not healed and may be intensified by ongoing negotiations over the EU Convention on the Future of Europe, which is set to map the scale of the organization's future integration.

"We have a problem in that the European Union is right now in a very difficult transition period. We have to think about the Convention and how to reform the European Union's institutions. And we have to realize that several members have quite different opinions about how fast to move on the goals of the European integration process and secondly, what they think about trans-Atlantic relations. That's not only a problem between Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, this is also true for the new [future] members," May says.

The best that can be hoped for, says May, is that world leaders, starting at this weekend's summits, will start to learn to manage their differences and move away from a black-and-white vision of the world -- both in Europe and in the United States.

"Sometimes people have this -- sorry to say -- naive idea that it's either black or white. Well, in real life, you have to realize that countries have several interests, those interests are different and one has to work towards a compromise and make sure that everybody can join in. It's not 'either you are with us or you are against us,' like President Bush put it. It would be a mistake to also use the same language in Europe," May says.

Ironically, of all the multilateral and bilateral relations that will be represented this weekend in St. Petersburg and Evian, U.S.-Russian ties may have weathered the Iraqi crisis best.

Marie Mendras, a specialist in international and Russian affairs at the Paris-based Center for International Study and Research, says, "The Russian-American relationship, in my view, is of a different nature if we compare it to trans-Atlantic relations like French-U.S. relations, British-U.S. relations, German-U.S. relations. I think we have to keep in mind that Russia is not an ally. It's not a member of NATO. It's different. So the stakes with Russia, in a way, are not as high. It's easier, I think, for the Americans and the Russians to smile at each other because the relationship is not that deep."

Despite U.S. displeasure at Moscow's continued nuclear cooperation with Iran and Russia's well-documented ties with Iraq before the war, Washington has approached its relations with Moscow pragmatically and can be expected to do so in the future, for strategic reasons. Russia still has vast stocks of nuclear weapons, meaning the United States wants to ensure the stability and reliability of its leadership, but Moscow is no longer seen as a threat to U.S. economic or political interests, so an extended hand seems practical and logical.

Expect lots of smiles but little substance in St. Petersburg, analysts say, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush. If the same happens with America's European allies, then the meetings will be judged a success.

The EU-Russia summit in St. Petersburg is scheduled for 31 May. The U.S.-Russia summit is due the following day, on 1 June. The G-8 summit in Evian begins later that same day and will run until 3 June.