25 February 2005
In the end, the promised confrontation between Presidents Bush and Putin over democracy in Russia never quite happened the way it was billed. The subject was raised at their meeting in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava, but the leaders of the old Cold War antagonists agreed to differ, preferring to stress their areas of accord over combating terror and keeping nuclear weapons from the wrong hands.
It was never likely to have been otherwise. President Bush's visit to Europe was meant to be about mending bridges, not creating new divides. After all the open splits and harsh words of the past two years, the diplomats were there to prevent disagreements erupting, not to add to them. And by the standard of diplomacy, President Bush's visit could be regarded as a reasonable success. The brave words about Russia's retreat from democracy were always aimed more at President Bush's audience on Capitol Hill than Red Square.
There were not many new initiatives except those, such as the agreement by all Nato partners to train Iraq's security forces, which had been carefully prepared beforehand. But otherwise the main achievements of this trip were in what didn't happen rather than what did. President Bush did not slight President Chirac during their dinner together in Brussels, nor the other way round. When appearing at carefully orchestrated question-and-answer sessions and at press conferences, Washington's chief gave no particular hostages to fortune.
On the plus side, there is a sense on all sides that the world has moved on since the invasion of Iraq tore the western alliance apart. Iraq has managed to go to the polls, albeit without many Sunnis voting, and could just be on the path to a self-governing democracy. The election of a new Palestinian leader, coupled with Israel's determination to press ahead with withdrawal from Gaza, has shifted the plates of Middle East peace.
On the negative side, however, President Bush's tour has done little to reassure Europeans that America has changed its mind on enforced regime change abroad, or that it may not be prepared to resort to arms to get its way again. The issues of global warming, arms sales to China and the best way to deal with Iran continue to divide the Europeans, including Russia, from Washington.
These are no idle disagreements. They go to the heart of the difference of approach between an interventionist White House, determined to change the world through confrontation and even force of arms, and a Europe which prefers to operate through negotiation and to intervene if necessary through international institutions.
In rejecting President Bush's activism, however, Europe needs to recognise that his call for democratic change has great resonance across many parts of the world, especially in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Compared to the cool and occasionally hostile reception which greeted the American President in Belgium and Germany earlier in the week, his greeting from the Slovaks in the main square of Bratislava was positively warm and sincere. For people without either the income or the political security of western Europe, a vision of genuine democracy is an attractive one.
The weakness of the European position is not its refusal to confront but its reluctance to use the means at its disposal - the prospect of trade, investment and technological transfer - to impress on its potential partners the need to conform to certain basic principles in their treatment of their own people Too often European leaders have belittled the more idealistic parts of Bush's rhetoric while casting aside all principle themselves in their rush to secure jobs and favours from countries such as Russia and China whose governments they profess to condemn. Instead of presenting a united front to these countries, Britain, France and Germany compete to gain favour.
Europe has a separate approach from the US of George Bush to international affairs, and a perfectly ethical one, but it needs to pull together if it is ever to make it effective.