Philip Stephens: US seeks theory to fit new role

By Philip Stephens

The Independent

Published: January 14 2005

The lesson that America's European friends hope George W. Bush will take from his first term into his second is that to be indispensable is not to be omnipotent. To say that few things in the world can be fixed without the engagement of the sole superpower is not to say that the US can fix them on its own terms.

A week before Mr Bush's inauguration, the omens are better than for some time. These things are relative. No one imagines that the next few years will see the US rebuild the multilateral system. Even if the respective leaders were inclined to forget the slights and grudges of the recent past, there have been too many changes in the strategic contours to allow a return to the old architecture.

As Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser to the first President Bush, has remarked, the US has still to find a strategic theory to fit its new role. It has long experience of acting as the arbiter of disputes, of projecting power from behind the deep defences of two oceans; much less of being an initiator of change in the global system. For their part, America's allies have yet to adjust to its transition from a status quo power to one that sets the terms of geopolitical trade. In any event, any new system will also have to find a way to accommodate the rising powers of Asia and Latin America.

The question for the next few years is whether these various shifts can avoid the frictions and confrontations of Mr Bush's first term and move in the direction, at least, of a new settlement. As far as the transatlantic alliance is concerned, either side, or both, can choose to play up the inevitable differences or instead to accentuate the issues where shared interests can yield a common purpose. Is the glass, in other words, half empty or half full?

For now, both sides are keen to say it is half full. It is not often you hear France's Jacques Chirac talk, as he did the other day, of the essential vitality of the relationship with Washington. And it counts that Mr Bush's trip to Europe next month seems likely to be followed by a visit by Mr Chirac to the White House. The US and French presidents will never be soulmates. But it is better that the sniping stops.

Tone of voice matters. Too many in Mr Bush's first administration spoke down to the rest of the world. Washington invited friends and allies to be difficult. I am reminded of the irritation of one experienced Polish diplomat at being telephoned by a US official with instructions on the stance to take at an international meeting. The incident rekindled memories of the diktats the diplomat routinely received from Moscow during the cold war. Unsurprisingly, his US interlocutor got short shrift.

The atmospherics can also determine whether specific disputes are resolved or escalated. The decision by Washington and Brussels this week to defer a confrontation on the subsidies paid to Boeing and Airbus speaks to the intelligent pragmatism of Robert Zoellick, the US trade negotiator, and Peter Mandelson, his European counterpart. But it is hardly a coincidence that it takes an awkward issue off the agenda ahead of Mr Bush's planned visit to Brussels.

In this context, it will be interesting to see how much of a fuss the administration makes when the European Union lifts its arms embargo on China. There will, no doubt,be anger in Washington but Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, came away from recent talks in the US capital with the impression that the EU would escape serious retaliation.

Mr Zoellick's impending move to serve as Condoleezza Rice's deputy at the state department is seen as another positive signal. No one who knows him thinks Mr Zoellick a soft touch. For her part, Ms Rice takes an instinctively more ideological line than her predecessor on issues such as Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Mr Zoellick knows how to work with multilateral institutions - and thus appreciates that negotiation can be to US advantage. He believes that the transformation in US foreign policy during Mr Bush's first term should be matched by transformational diplomacy in the second.

Less reassuring is Donald Rumsfeld's reappointment at defence. It is not just that Mr Rumsfeld has a habit of patronising even America's most stalwart allies - ask Britain's Tony Blair. The defence secretary is at once the author of the abject failure of America's military occupation and the most vehement opponent of anyone else being given a voice that might dilute the Pentagon's control. That said, there is no enthusiasm in Europe to share the US burden. America is judged to have lost in Iraq. The issue for Europeans is whether the inevitable retreat leaves behind a passably stable Iraqi state or civil war.

If Iraq has shaped transatlantic relations for the past two years, the determinant for the future is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Every European politician I have spoken to puts US engagement to restore the peace process as the sine qua non of easier transatlantic ties. It is, as Michel Barnier, the French foreign minister, has said, "the test of the moment". If Mr Bush fails it, the mood will quickly turn sour.

The air of optimism in the wake of the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian leader seems real enough. Wary as they are of the pitfalls ahead, experienced officials such as Mr Solana speak of an opportunity for an end to the Palestinian intifada alongside the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. With some prodding from the US, Israel's Ariel Sharon has echoed the positive notes sounded by Mr Abbas.

Yet for all the talk of a return to negotiations on the basis of the road map for a two-state solution - essential to give the new Palestinian leadership real authority over its own militants and thus end terror attacks on Israel - the process is not even at its starting point. Instead, the Palestinians face new tests before both sides reach the initial confidence-building measures envisaged in the road map.

This leaves hanging the fundamental question of whether Mr Sharon sees withdrawal from Gaza as an end in itself - a tactical move to strengthen Israel's hold on large swaths of the West Bank - or whether he will be willing eventually to see it as the start of the road to two states. Peace is possible only if it is the latter. That demands of Mr Bush in his second term the even-handed and sustained US engagement in the region woefully absent during his first.

philip.stephens@ft.com