Officials acknowledge Rice will carry important messages of her own, topped by the announcement over the weekend that the United States will once again step up its involvement in the Mideast peace process. Many EU politicians have singled out improving Israeli-Palestinian relations as the bloc’s preeminent foreign policy goal.
But, more importantly, Rice is preparing ground for the first visit by U.S. President Bush to Europe since his reelection.
Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said yesterday that both the Rice and Bush visits were preceded by the highest level of diplomatic activity seen in years. This, he says, reaffirms the importance the United States associates with NATO.
“This is a period of intensive American engagement with NATO. And there is no question that we continue to see NATO as our great and important -- most important -- security alliance, certainly in Europe, and around the world,” Burns said.
A NATO official told RFE/RL that the visit by Rice is a “high point” in a steady stream of senior U.S. officials, including senators, that have visited NATO headquarters since December 2004. The official says visitors have all had one overarching concern -- to “sound out” allies in preparation for advancing President Bush’s goals for his second term in office.
The official said NATO’s European allies, in turn, “await Bush’s message” when the president arrives in Brussels on 21 February for summits with NATO and the EU the following day.
Burns indicated yesterday that the United States has a long wish list for its allies in NATO, while at the same time praising what Washington sees as growing goodwill among its European allies.
“NATO is more united now than it has been at any time over the last two and a half years. We expect over the course of 2005 to see NATO consolidate its training mission in Iraq, and then to build that mission. We expect NATO to expand its peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan and to work on integrating that with [the U.S.-led] operation ‘Enduring Freedom,’” Burns said.
Burns went on to mention other important priorities -- cooperation with Russia and Ukraine, the evolving Partnership for Peace ties with countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and attempts to reach out to Arab countries.
One NATO official said Iraq and Afghanistan are particularly important on that list. He indicated the United States understands the “sensitivities” of Germany and France -- who opposed the war in Iraq -- but greatly appreciates their involvement in the training of Iraqi troops and police. Germany has set up a training facility in the nearby United Arab Emirates and France plans to do the same in Qatar.
The official said the United States wants each NATO ally to contribute either troops, training, or money for Iraq by 22 February, when Bush arrives.
In Afghanistan, officials said, the United States appreciates efforts spearheaded by Italy, Spain, and Lithuania to set up “provincial reconstruction teams” in the west part of the country. A move to do the same in the south will follow this summer.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said yesterday that the visit by Bush is a sign that relations between the United States and its European allies are very good.
“The fact that the president [Bush] is coming so soon after his inauguration is a very positive sign of the continued U.S. commitment to NATO. The fact that the president is here so soon as such is a very important signal, and it will mark a very positive state of the trans-Atlantic relationship,” Scheffer said.
Both Rice and Bush will face a slightly different agenda when they confront the EU. EU mediating efforts in Iran and the bloc’s plan to rescind its weapons embargo on China -- although they’ve been discussed at NATO, too -- will top the agenda here.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said yesterday that he, like de Hoop Scheffer, believes the United States is trying to mend fences with its European partners.
“The visit of president Bush, which is preceded by [that of] the secretary state [Rice], I think shows a wish on the part of the United States’ new administration, the second Bush administration, to reach out. To reach out to NATO as the [NATO] secretary general [Scheffer] has said, but also to the European Union,” Solana said.
But neither Iran nor China are easy topics. While the United States says it supports the EU-conducted negotiations with Tehran, the talks are stalled and Washington has not formally ruled out using force.
An EU decision to lift the weapons embargo on China -- which officials say is a near-certainty -- is likely to lead to a strong reaction in Washington.
And finally, France and Germany, among others, will judge the meetings with Rice and Bush by whether the United States is prepared to treat Europe as an equal partner.