U.S. President George W. Bush has begun his European tour in Germany, where he has already received a lively reception from thousands of protesters in the streets of Berlin. The demonstrations serve to highlight the differences between the United States and its European allies.
Prague, 23 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States changed the world, of that there is no doubt. The attacks struck an unsuspecting America like a thunderbolt at a time when a new president was in office, untried and untested.
But as soon as the administration of President George W. Bush had recovered from the initial shock, it began to formulate a thorough program designed to eradicate international terrorism and to rally international support for that cause. There followed the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, and now Washington appears eager to move against Iraq, as well.
The Bush administration also has taken a series of decisive steps in other areas, like rejecting the Kyoto international climate-control treaty out of hand, withdrawing unilaterally from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and imposing steel-import tariffs in the face of international criticism.
These actions, taken together, have created a new perception of the United States in the world: that of an immensely powerful giant that acts as it sees fit, with scant regard for the views of others. As Bush commented recently, words without actions mean nothing.
To counter this perception, the president and his team have arrived in Europe emphasizing the U.S. desire to consult fully with its allies. As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell put it: "I think this is a trip in which we can celebrate all of the cooperative efforts we have been involved in, as well as talk about other issues such as trade, where there are disagreements, but disagreements which we can work to resolve."
Meanwhile, in the streets of Berlin, the city has mounted the largest police operation since World War II to control demonstrators, who variously oppose U.S. policies on trade, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, and the environment.
As the head of the French Center on the United States, Guillaume Parmentier, put it, the divergence of opinions between the U.S. and Europe is real.
"There is a [perceived] preference by the Americans, and I would say an inbuilt preference by the Americans, for solutions implying the use of force, if only because they find it easy to use force, and to finance military wherewithal. In Europe, I think it is exactly the opposite. There is an inbuilt preference for peaceful or negotiated solutions to international issues," Parmentier said.
At the same time, he said, Europeans find "great difficulty" in financing military activities. The analyst said this basic difference of approach may turn out to be a persistent one that could affect bilateral perceptions well into the future.
Another senior analyst, Philippe Moreau de Farge of the French Institute for International Relations, said European opinion was initially in favor of the Bush administration, but that has now changed.
"Many people were impressed by the management of the crisis after 11 September, but today what is going on with the trade issues -- steel, agriculture -- there is the view that [U.S. President] Bush does not have a clear vision of what he wants to do," Moreau de Farge said.
Moreau de Farge said a period of difficulty and misunderstanding may persist, in part because the old, stable framework of the Cold War is gone, and the new framework of international relations is in flux and still evolving.
What could improve U.S.-European Union ties, among the most important security and trade relationships in the world? Parmentier said that, from the European side, the United States must genuinely listen.
"What will improve things is an impression by the Europeans that the Americans are listening, that this administration is listening, and is taking them seriously. And that is particularly the case because the Americans will have to say that they take Russia seriously during this same trip," Moreau de Farge said.
From Germany, Bush heads later today to Russia for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and to sign a nuclear-arms reduction accord. He then heads to Italy and France.
Moreau de Farge said Bush's visit to Western Europe will not be easy because Bush is going to ask the Europeans for something they cannot deliver, namely increased defense expenditures. It is also doubtful whether they can be brought around to supporting any possible military action against Iraq.
But whatever the strains, the relationship must continue, said Moreau de Farge. "Europeans have no other choice. They have no other choice because today Europe is unable to fulfill its own real defense, and not even an autonomous or independent defense. That's why the European governments have no other choice than to remain close to the Bush administration."
It's not just a question of keeping things on an even keel on the shores of the Atlantic. As the head of the European Policy Center in Brussels, John Palmer, put it.
"The trans-Atlantic relationship is -- and should be -- a cornerstone of any global policy for development, and for peace and stability in the world. And historically, we have shared and continue to share a very great deal in common," Palmer said.
The relationship is too important to be allowed to fail.