06 December 2003
When President Bush made his flying visit to Baghdad on Thanksgiving Day, he waited only as long as it took to leave Iraqi air space to broadcast the news of his feat all over the world. How differently has Mr Bush handled this week's big news: the rescinding of the tariffs on imported steel his administration had introduced less than two years ago.
After days of "will he, won't he" speculation to prepare public opinion, the White House finally released the news in a short written statement read by an official. The President positioned himself and his presidency as far as possible from the unpleasant announcement as he could. It was a text-book example of how to limit political damage.
Mr Bush may well get away with it. He is generally a fortunate politician. Voters in next year's presidential election may find the pictures of the President serving turkey to the troops more beguiling than the claims of comparatively well-paid workers clinging doggedly to an industry in decline. Nor will the genteel Europeans be inclined to kick the man when he is down. They have won and they know it.
Yet this moment deserves to be marked. With the benefit of hindsight and a wider, more historical perspective, the President's climbdown on steel tariffs may come to be seen less as an isolated decision than as a watershed.
This could well be the moment when the balance of moral, political and material advantage tipped back across the Atlantic, from the new world to the old; the moment, in fact, when the global ascendancy of the United States started to wane, and the European Century began.
Mr Bush's repeal of his steel tariffs was, of course, born of short-term domestic expediency. With the 2004 election campaign gathering pace, he judged, probably correctly, that there were fewer votes in protected steel than there were in cheap cars and domestic appliances. And the White House was not being completely disingenuous when it insisted that the reversal on steel tariffs was dictated by domestic considerations and would have happened regardless of the World Trade Organisation rulings or the threatened European sanctions.
But its "local" explanation misses a key point. The steel tariffs might indeed have had the desired effect in the United States had the WTO had not existed and had the European Union failed to co-ordinate its response. When the Europeans shrewdly directed their retaliatory sanctions at states such as Florida, where support for Mr Bush's teeters on a knife edge, there was no real contest.
Mr Bush's presidency so far has been distinguished by an American unilateralism that Mr Bush specifically rejected during his election campaign. The multilateral approach that his predecessor, Bill Clinton, had espoused was abandoned even before the shock of vulnerability inflicted by the attacks of 11 September 2001. Mr Bush had already led the US away from the Kyoto treaty on climate change, the International Criminal Court, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
The attacks of 11 September merely solidified the trend, as Mr Bush proceeded from his new motto that "anyone who is not with us is against us". To take his country (and ours) into war with Iraq, Mr Bush (and Mr Blair) disregarded the majority on the UN Security Council and went it alone. The unhappy results will be with us for many years to come.
Mr Clinton had many faults, but one of his signal merits was to view the world in rather broader and longer terms than his successor appears to do. He said on several occasions that international agreements needed to be drawn up in such a way that the US would be content to be party to them, even if it were no longer "top dog". This is a rule that all drafters of international agreements should obey.
The day when America is no longer "top dog", however, may be closer than Washington imagines. On steel, the US was held to account by an international body, the WTO, that it had been instrumental in creating. But it was the strength of the EU that made the agreement stick. And the strength of the euro - at record levels against the dollar - is evidence of more international confidence in Europe than Europeans themselves appreciate.
Last weekend's agreement on European defence, in the face of overt and unprecedented US pressure, is further evidence of Europe's capacity to concert its actions. And the fact that Britain, Spain, Italy and Poland have troops in Iraq, whereas other EU states do not, has disguised two other facts: that Europe is united in calling for the UN to oversee Iraq and that, little by little, Washington is being forced to accept its terms.
Economic strength and multilateralism are not Europe's only strengths. Health systems whose first principle is that all should be treated, regardless of income; social security nets that - mostly - prevent the abject poverty and social division that are so near the surface in the US; working hours and holidays that try to allow a life outside work.
Europe may not live up to all its aspirations. But it is these co-operative and social principles, not the imperatives of competition and domination, that increasingly have global appeal. Welcome to the century of Europe.