America and Europe are as far apart as ever

There isn't the faintest sign that the sides are nearer understanding one another

Adrian Hamilton

The Independent

29 January 2005

A great deal of ink has been spent over the past week determining just how different Bush Mark II will be from Mark 1. A great many words have also been expended about the hopes of a rapprochement between Europe and America this time round.

Tony Blair was at it during his interview with the Financial Times yesterday. US policy, he declared, had been undergoing an "evolution" which people over here were "underestimating". Condoleezza Rice, the new US Secretary of State, was saying the same thing during her Senate confirmation hearings last week. And it is, it has to be said, a growing refrain among European diplomats, however dismissive they might be of the wilder shores of Bush's freedom rhetoric during his inaugural address.

Unfortunately it just isn't so, not, that is, other than in terms of tone and formal diplomacy. US policy has evolved. That's true enough, if for no other reason than Iraq has not gone according to plan and is stretching even US resources to their limit. Washington cannot approach Iran as it approached Iraq, for all the threatening noises from Vice-President Dick Cheney. Nor can it afford to ignore the rest of the world in the way if did during and after the invasion and occupation.

All that bodes well for a different tenor of conversation when President Bush comes to Europe next month. It even suggests a degree of harmony, at least in the early phases, on Middle East peace moves and over Britain's determination in the G8 to move things forward on debts and aid. And it's not just Bush who is changing his tone. Many of Europe's leaders, including the French, would prefer to rebuild shattered bridges now.

What all these nice words won't do, however, is to bridge the fundamental divides. Bush, as those close to him have never ceased to emphasise, is a man of instincts (prejudices, others might say) and these have not changed one iota. Indeed, they have been reinforced by his victory. You only had to listen to his press conference yesterday, with its sense of supreme confidence in his own rightness, to understand that.

His is a view that divides the world into "goodies" and "baddies". The original Axis of Evil has been modified by Condoleezza Rice in her confirmation hearings to include Zimbabwe and Burma, and to drop Libya. But there's still a list and there's still a refusal to treat with anyone on it. The US won't actively stop the Europeans dealing with Iran, or Asian nations treating with North Korea, but it's not going to go down that route itself nor give any help to its allies in doing so.

Nor does Bush show any sign of changing his fundamental view of the Middle East issue. The Europeans want America to shift to a more even- handed approach to Palestine and to pressure Israel to make real concessions. Washington seeks a deal - as indeed its seeks to promote democracy throughout the region - primarily as a means of ensuring security for itself and for Israel. So long as the peace talks are concerned with the new Palestinian leadership's efforts to clamp down on violence, the US will be supportive, and even committed. When - or rather if - talks ever move on to a final settlement and the future of Palestinian returnees and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, then you will see the real differences emerge.

But the transatlantic divide, indeed the divide between the US and much of the rest of the world, really comes to the fore over the question of multilateralism. All of Bush's instincts and Republican philosophy are against pooling any US sovereignty in multi-lateral institutions. If anything, it regards such bodies as the UN, the Kyoto treaty group and the International Criminal Court as both inefficient in themselves and inimical to American interests. The experience of Iraq has only served to reinforce that view.

Yet all the surveys of world opinion suggest that most other countries regard these institutions as the route to the future, and a better world. We are seeing the differences over charging the perpetrators of Darfur massacres before the International Criminal Court. We will see the depth of American antagonism when the report is published in the next few weeks into the corruption of the UN-administered oil-for-food programme in Iraq. We will see it again when the signatories of the Kyoto treaty start to discuss specific targets in March.

This is more than just a difference of emphasis. From the very beginning of the transatlantic divide over Iraq, there has been a fundamental misunderstanding by the two sides about each other's views. Europe has never really comprehended how strong President Bush's instincts were and how in tune he was with Middle America.

But equally, the administration in Washington never really understood that the opposition in the UN and in Europe over Iraq was not because of the machinations of the leaders of France or Germany, or Brazil and South Africa. It was, as opinion poll after opinion poll showed, the reflection of a deep opposition on the part of the public of those countries who thought that this exercise of US arms was taking the world precisely in the opposite direction to that which they believed in.

Looking at the position today, there isn't the faintest sign that the two sides are anywhere nearer understanding each other than they were two years ago. For all the more emollient words, it's still a dialogue of the deaf.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk