In the run up to the general election Tony Blair has been talking of reconciliation in his ‘marriage’ to Britain. But this is not the only relationship that needs patching up after the troubled invasion of Iraq. In his recent trip to the continent George Bush did his best to charm Europe in order to mend what has become a decidedly uneasy long-distance relationship.
Mutual contempt has been rife between the US and Europe in recent years. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld talked in dismissive terms about ‘old Europe’, while issues such as the invasion of Iraq and America’s refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement sparked anger on this side of the Atlantic.
Bush’s “good will” tour was an attempt to foster a new start. Points of conflict were papered over for the time being and points of agreement were emphasised. President Bush indicated US diplomatic priorities when he referred to peace in the Middle East “as our greatest opportunity and our immediate goal”. But he gave little away about the shape of the final settlement, which will be the real test of European- American unity.
The White House wanted to use this visit to put the controversy of Iraq behind them. Bush presented Iraq as the “world’s newest democracy” and succeeded in gaining a pledge from EU and NATO members that they would assist with the reconstruction of Iraq. But behind the smiles there remain serious differences.
Few people in France welcomed the re-election of Mr Bush, but Paris knows that despite their feeling towards the President it must do business with him. In Brussels Mr Chirac was open to Bush’s spirit of reconciliation and the pair released a joint statement warning Iran that it must not develop nuclear weapons. However, there are several thorny issues between the two powers, such as their attitudes to China. France and Germany want to reopen arms sales to China but Bush opposes this arguing that it will upset the balance of power with Taiwan.
The Germans feel much the same way towards Mr Bush as the French and have had similar relationships with the US in recent years due to their joint opposition to the invasion of Iraq. But new issues also divide Gerhard Schroeder and Bush. The White House has dismissed Schroeder’s proposal to gain better representation for Europe by overhauling NATO. The German public also remained unconvinced: this time the streets of Mainz, where Bush’s father was cheered in 1989, were empty. However, there was much laughter and talk of shared values between the leaders as they attempted to portray a united front. Like Chirac, Schroeder issued a joint statement with Bush on Iran, playing down differences in approach.
As part of his campaign to spread freedom and democracy, Bush’s tour continued to Europe where he confronted Vladimir Putin about the erosion of press and political freedoms in Russia. He managed to extract a pledge from Putin that Russia would never go back to totalitarianism, but Putin held some ground, stating that he would not allow democratic reforms to threaten the collapse of the Russian state.
The Slovakian crowds offered Bush a warm welcome, while Putin humoured Bush with friendly handshakes and smiles. But Russian journalists were more confrontational. Two reporters managed to turn the tables on Bush and questioned him about curbs on freedom in the US.
In the UK the Prime Minister’s breakfast with Mr Bush was relatively low key as there is little about their relationship that needs mending. Blair was predictably supportive, praising Bush on his aims for the Middle East peace process. However, there are signs that the ‘special relationship’ with the US may in future come second to a European alliance. Blair has joined France and Germany in pursuing diplomatic relations with Iran against US policy.
This was a tour of grand gestures where style won out over substance. But by travelling to Brussels, Mainz and Slovakia to meet him, Bush’s former opponents in Europe have shown that they are willing to meet him partway on the road to reconciliation.
It remains to be seen whether the smiles and masquerades can survive real conflicts of opinion.