Bush’s New Tone

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.
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Beyond the specifics of what was said and done, there was an enormous symbolic importance in President Bush’s decision to visit Europe this week as the first major act of his second term. After presiding during his first term over a perilous fraying of the Atlantic alliance, Bush appears to have recognized the urgency of pulling back from the brink. Those who have faulted him for his unilateralism in the past — including this newspaper — need to acknowledge the change and welcome it.

To be sure, the two democratic continents continue to disagree on a host of critical issues, from Iran to China to global warming. Four days of speechmaking and toasts could hardly have been expected to clear up the profound differences. Indeed, some of the disputes reflect divergent interests that have been simmering for decades. But the Bush era introduced a peculiar tone of incivility, pushing tensions toward the breaking point. This week’s visit signaled a change in that tone. If the change is real, if Washington is ready for real dialogue, then there is hope that the substantive disputes can be addressed.

The credit for the changed tone is not all Bush’s. European leaders have been working hard for months to let the president know that if he moved toward them, he would be met more than halfway. Bush remains deeply unpopular in European public opinion, and European leaders frankly admit in private that they were shocked last November when American voters gave him a second term. Still, they recognize that he’s the man they’ll have to deal with for the next four years. Civility among allies is a two-way street.

As Bush himself said in Brussels, the “Euro-Atlantic family” is “essential to peace and prosperity across the globe.” Both sides understand that.

It’s tempting to dismiss the president’s new tone as mere atmospherics, a matter of trying to sell his administration’s hard-line policies with a smile instead of a snarl. There’s no doubt that unilateralism loses much of its appeal, even to a superpower, when the budgets are tapped out and the troops are tied down in an endless foreign insurgency.

But there’s also a new bounce in the president’s walk that’s born of success, not setback. The elections in Iraq have created a new reality there, convincing many of the war’s opponents that the argument is moot and it’s time to move on. The elections in the Palestinian Authority and the revival of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy have eased one of the sorest points in trans-Atlantic relations. And, of course, the American elections have made it clear who’s the boss for the next four years. Bush can afford to be generous.

European diplomats tell us they’re finding a new and convincing readiness in Washington these days to talk things out and to look for common ground on the next big issues — negotiating Iran’s nuclear program, forgiving African debt, even slowing global warming. There’s a sense, for the first time in several years, that compromises can be found before we’re all pushed to the brink. They know that they will have to do much of the compromising.

That’s all to the good. The Western democracies share a universe of core values that transcend policy differences. Preserving that alliance is worth compromise on all sides.

Only in one area do European diplomats describe themselves as running up against a brick wall in Washington these days: America’s ballooning national debt and the threat it poses to the stability of the global economy. Europeans are terrified at the magnitude of America’s indebtedness as taxes are cut, government spending grows and imports soar to satisfy consumer appetites, all on borrowed cash. They worry about the growing proportion of this debt that’s owed to a handful of foreign governments, particularly China, which Washington perversely continues to treat as an enemy. They worry that if Washington’s fiscal recklessness continues, investor confidence will evaporate, the dollar will collapse and we’ll all be dragged down together.

Officials of the International Monetary Fund have been shouting about the looming crisis for a year. It was the subject of a testy personal exchange last June between President Bush and his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac. Diplomats raise it regularly in exchanges with Washington at every level. But, they say, they receive blank stares in reply. “You can’t have a dialogue on something that one side doesn’t want to discuss,” a senior European official told the Forward in an editorial briefing recently. “The Americans just don’t consider this a problem. All we can do is worry.”

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