Bush Seeks to Begin a Thaw in a Europe Still Cool to Him

By ELISABETH BUMILLER

New York Times

February 19, 2005

WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 - President Bush leaves for Brussels on Sunday for a four-day campaign to sell himself to Europe as a new man with open arms, but behind his embrace of the triumvirate that opposed him on Iraq - President Jacques Chirac of France, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia - lie serious tensions unlikely to be resolved on the trip.

Most significant are the White House rebuff of European requests that the United States take part in talks to persuade Iran to abandon what is thought to be a nuclear weapons program, and American opposition to Europe's plan to lift an embargo on arms sales to China.

Mr. Bush is also expected to raise with Mr. Putin his concerns about Russia's retreat from democracy and its plan to sell weapons to Syria.

European and American officials say that Mr. Bush's postelection visit to Belgium, Germany and Slovakia will not produce the usual communiqués, although they expect some formal agreement, much of it already in effect, that all 26 countries in NATO will commit to the training of Iraqi security forces.

But over all, the goal is simply to change the ugly atmosphere after the trans-Atlantic quarrel over the American-led invasion of Iraq.

"You've got to start somewhere," said Tom C. Korologos, the American ambassador to Belgium. "It's got to be the beginning of a thaw. It's like a family that got a divorce. You have to kiss before you go to sleep."

Toward that end, much of Mr. Bush's trip will be marked by the kind of stagecraft that the White House is known for and does not leave to chance, like a dinner that Mr. Bush is giving for his old nemesis, Mr. Chirac, at the home of Ambassador Korologos in Brussels.

There is also a round-table discussion scheduled with pre-selected Germans and Americans in Mainz, a format adopted after administration officials decided that a "town hall" meeting with Mr. Bush and German citizens was too politically risky.

The proposed town-hall meeting raised the inevitable issue, said Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to Washington, of "Do you know what kinds of folks you are going to have at that meeting and what kinds of questions they might ask?" Mr. Ischinger said the Germans told the Americans that the guests could not be screened, as White House officials do at similar events in the United States, and so "don't be mad at us if some nasty question comes up."

White House officials are hopeful that the theater of the trip - Mr. Bush is to give a major speech in the grand setting of the 19th-century Concert Noble, now a for-rent Brussels concert hall - will overshadow the substantive differences and create a new tone. "Style can sometimes have a substance all its own," said Ivo H. Daalder, a foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Bush began changing that tone in the first days after his re-election, when Condoleezza Rice, then his national security adviser and now his secretary of state, presented him with a lengthy memorandum telling him that improved relations with Europe had to be his foreign-policy priority in the second term.

Since then, Mr. Bush has made overtures to Europe in his Inaugural Address, his State of the Union address and this past Thursday in a news conference, when he meandered off in a more personal way than he had in the past.

"September the 11th was an interesting phenomenon in terms of our relations," Mr. Bush said when he was asked what he had to offer to Europe beyond warm words. "For some in Europe, it was just a passing terrible moment. And for us, it was a change of - it caused us to change our foreign policy." Those differences, he said, "at times, frankly, caused us to talk past each other."

"And I recognize that, and I want to make sure the Europeans understand I know that, and that as we move beyond the differences of the past, that we can work together to achieve big objectives."

Mr. Bush will spend the bulk of his trip in Brussels, from Sunday night to Wednesday morning, and he will spend much of Tuesday in meetings at the headquarters of NATO and the European Union.

European officials acknowledged this past week that they were aware that Mr. Bush abhors such formal sessions and that they saw his visit as underscoring the administration's commitment to European unity. The European Union now has 25 members and an economy that competes with the United States.

"Don't underestimate the importance of this as a gesture," said John Bruton, the European Union's representative in the United States.

In Slovakia, Mr. Bush will meet with Mr. Putin and raise what he has promised will be questions about Mr. Putin's recent crackdown on dissent. But Mr. Bush indicated that he would do so in private, and gently.

In recent months the Russian government has seized a unit of the oil company Yukos and arrested its executives, removed powers from state governors and taken steps to take over independent television.

"I have a good relationship with President Putin," Mr. Bush said in an interview with Slovak State Television at the White House on Friday morning. "And the reason - and that's important, because that then will give me a chance to say in private - ask him why he's been making some of the decisions he's been making."

Mr. Bush added: "I want him to be able to have a chance to say he's done it for this reason or done that, so I can explain to him as best I can, in a friendly way, of course, that Western values are, you know, are based upon transparency and rule of law, the right for the people to express themselves, checks and balances in government."

Mr. Bush also said in an interview with the Itar-Tass news agency on Friday that he would visit Moscow in May for the 60th anniversary of Russia's victory against the Germans in World War II.

Both European and American officials said that they expected little if any change in their differences on Iran, in particular over its nuclear program, and that the United States would remain doubtful of the European approach of offering economic and political incentives to try to get Iran to drop what is suspected to be a program to develop nuclear arms. The Europeans counter that the talks will fail without the participation of the United States.

Similarly, there is little chance for agreement on Europe's plans to lift an arms embargo it imposed on China in 1989 after the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

The Bush administration is concerned that lifting the embargo may help China modernize its military, but the Europeans say they would limit the transfer of certain high technology by adopting a "code of conduct" for exports.