A Thaw in U.S.-European Relations?

French President Jacques Chirac speaks with President Bush.

French President Jacques Chirac, left, speaks with President Bush before their dinner in Brussels, Feb. 21, 2005. © Reuters/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption © Reuters/Corbis

What will we remember of President Bush's visit to Europe in February 2005?

Mostly pictures: the American president beaming in Brussels, chuckling with French President Jacques Chirac, squinting at Russian President Vladimir Putin.

All week, the president kept up the sunny swagger of a campaign swing — and appropriately so. The European visit, billed as a listening tour, was pure politics and designed for show.

On one hand, it was a show of respect and friendship. President Bush devoted the first overseas trip of his second term to meetings of both NATO and, more notably, the European Union. He also sat down with two of his chief antagonists from his first term, the leaders of France and Germany.

At the same time, there was also a showing of the flag, both for American interests and for the pride of the president himself. While being his most winning self, Mr. Bush was also reminding the Continent of what he's won lately. In addition to his own re-election in November, there have been successful elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. Scant months ago, plenty of wise heads in Europe had harbored doubts about all three of these outcomes.

Not all the European leaders related to the trip as a kind of victory lap for Mr. Bush, to be sure. Many think the jury is very much still out on Iraq (and even on Afghanistan as well). Still, everyone was willing to grip and grin for the cameras and move on. For their own internal politics, they could cast the visit as a salute to their rising stock in the world. In this sense, Mr. Bush was at least paying them the courtesy of a call, if not quite paying tribute.

The Europeans have their own reasons for feeling strong these days in their dealings with the United States. These include the appreciating euro, the ascendance of the EU as the defining organization for the Continent and the corresponding decline for NATO, which the U.S. dominated from its inception in World War II. The 25-nation EU now has a larger population than the U.S. and a domestic product of equal value (about $11 trillion). Long dependent on the U.S. for security, and often resentful of the fact, the Europeans are increasingly comfortable — and unified — on their own.

That makes them less malleable to American purposes and more effective as a counterweight. No surprise then that greater European integration and a stronger EU have made at least some people in the Bush administration uncomfortable in the past (people who would prefer to deal with NATO or with one European country at a time).

On this trip, however, the kinder-gentler side of Mr. Bush paid court to the EU itself and he had warm words for European unity in his toasts and other remarks last week.

Not that the American president was any more willing than last year to cede ground on the many issues that separate the continents. He is no friendlier to the Kyoto treaty on climate change, no more willing to put U.S. military action off the table in dealing with Iran and no less opposed to EU plans for arms sales to China.

Nor have the recalcitrant among the Europeans moved on any of these issues. When it comes to the flashpoint of Iraq, the two sides have little to say. The latest offers of aid for U.S. efforts to rebuild that country amount to little beyond tokenism. The prevailing attitude is to let Mr. Bush go it largely alone, waiting to see how the new Iraqi government fares and whether American support for Bush's investment there holds up over time.

So that's why the week's main value was symbolic, and why the cheery photos were important. This trip was all about showing the leaders from both sides of the Atlantic in a more receptive mood. That's not a breakthrough in itself, but it may be prerequisite to any breakthrough being made.

In the end, all this isn't personal. It's just business. Whatever else happens in this new century, these two economic powerhouses need to preserve and exploit what they have in common. Only bad things happen if they do not.

For his part, President Bush is not overly stressed about what the trip may have meant or how much information about it reached U.S. citizens. Arriving home Friday, he recorded his weekly radio address. It began with "good morning" and two very general sentences about the trip. The next words from his mouth were: "Now that I'm back home, I'm eager to move ahead with one of my top domestic priorities: strengthening and saving Social Security."

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