National Post

Bush's next big test

Former Senior Fellow and Vice Chair, Board of Trustees

The first year of a new U.S. administration always seems to be unnerving for the country's allies. How quickly we have forgotten the disputes between the Europeans and the Clinton administration about Bosnia, and the repeated misjudgments of a new president who saw nothing amiss in having a haircut on a Los Angeles runway or appointing his wife to oversee an overhaul of health care. The fumblings of the new Bush administration are of a different nature, but tensions with allies appear to have intensified in recent months despite the presence on the Bush team of seasoned foreign policy experts such as Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Special Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, amongst many others.

President George W. Bush has made a number of provocative declarations concerning defense, the environment, energy policy and trade, and appears to have become the catalyst for renewed rumblings of anti-Americanism throughout the world. Most countries in the world have yet to accept the dominance of a single superpower and the growing cultural and technological, as well as economic and political, influence of the United States. They perceive the Bush administration's skepticism about certain multilateral forums and its failure to consult allies before suggesting significant new policy initiatives as a further manifestation of arrogant hegemonic behaviour.

In a rather perverse way, some countries even rejoiced at the weakening of the U.S. economy, delighting in the perceived failure of the U.S. model. The fact that the market worked and corrected excesses escaped them, as they claimed, in Europe especially, an ability to escape the U.S. downturn and maintain vigorous growth. They supposedly had avoided the bubble and would miss the slowdown, but the influence of the United States did reach Europe, and the European economy is pausing. Interdependence survives, much to the irritation of those same European multilateralists who accuse the United States of wanting to go it alone.

Next week the President begins a trip to Europe which will take him to Sweden for the U.S.-EU summit, and later to Italy for the G7 gathering, which will also include a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. He will encounter not only curiosity and skepticism, but he should expect a fair share of heckling, protests and animosity. How this poorly travelled and poorly read anti-intellectual President navigates in these treacherous waters will be an interesting test of his abilities.

For sure, tensions between Europe and the United States did not arise with the Bush Administration, nor are they a Republican phenomenon. The Mansfield Amendment in the early '70s proposed an outright withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe. France withdrew from NATO in the early '60s when Democrats held the White House. In more recent times, failure by the United States to adopt the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and to support an international criminal court as well as pacts banning the use of land mines, date back to the Clinton administration. Pronouncements of the Bush administration have only enlarged the list of disagreements. In part, the discord is real, but in part it arises from a lack of appreciation of European sensitivities and concerns on the part of President Bush, combined with hypocrisy, apprehension and self-righteousness in Europe.

Take Kyoto. Europeans as well as Americans concur that this is a flawed agreement. In fact, no major European country has ratified the agreement, and plans had called for substantial modifications and continued discussions about its very foundations. The intentions of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director Christine Whitman were to at least try to engage Europe in discussions about a reformulation of the Kyoto accord before an outright rejection of the pact. The haste with which the Bush White House declared Kyoto 'dead on arrival' may have achieved the same final result in a more expeditious and transparent manner, but the cost of such an approach did little to expose European pretense and much to erode transatlantic goodwill.

Missile defense is a more complicated question which pits U.S. rethinking of Cold War theology against many Europeans who continue to view deterrence as a question of national survival. Many European politicians claim that, just as they have succeeded in convincing their peaceniks that nuclear deterrence works, the United States is proposing unilateral cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the abandonment of arms control treaties. Paradoxically, the same European governments calling for a European rapid reaction force and searching for greater economic and political independence from the United States derive little comfort from a missile defense plan that they fear might force them into greater self-reliance.

Russia itself, with an economy the size of the Netherlands, a massive nuclear arsenal and the jilted pride and growing nationalism of a former empire, will be a formidable challenge for President George W. Will Russia openly subscribe to his view that classical deterrence and balance of terror ideologies have been overtaken by the realities of a post-Cold War world? Will it accept a broader agenda that might include economic development and greater political, as well as trade and financial, liberalization? Those are real issues issues for strategic debate that the President will have to explain with more clarity and simplicity than he has thus far.

Finally, on human rights his task will be formidable. Europeans strongly believe that the death penalty is an affront to human rights and have even made it a condition of EU accession that countries abolish the death penalty. For years, in fact, many in the United States have argued against a uniform, internationally applicable definition of human rights, and that will certainly remain the U.S. position on this particular issue. Nevertheless, the European actions in the United Nations to prevent U.S. participation on the Human Rights Commission highlight the grudges on both sides and signal the need for skillful diplomacy. The world will watch carefully next week to determine whether or not George W. Bush has the right stuff.