June 20, 2001
George W. Bush was once again a beneficiary of what he has called, in another context, the "soft bigotry of low expectations" during his not-so-grand tour of Europe. To the surprise of nobody except the credulous and those who get their information from late-night comics, he uttered only a few Bushisms and managed to avoid egregious mistakes or misstatements. His mock-earnest speaking style, attempting to convey the obviousness of sweet reasonableness, is still mildly irritating, but he didn’t act like a hick or a loon. Nor was he swept away or upstaged by the supposed brilliance of his European counterparts.
You might almost think that the media producing the obligatory introductory pieces had conspired in making him look good by forecasting disaster and severe tongue-lashings from the European fans of Kyoto and foes of missile defense.
Then Dubya, after being mooned en masse by anti-American protesters in Sweden surprised most observers by having a remarkably warm meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Slovenia. "I looked the man in the eye," the inexperienced American president said. "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul."
Sure he was.
The surprisingly congenial atmospherics surrounding the Bush European tour come in the midst of a number of important shifts in both European and Russian strategic thinking. President Bush might think a charm offensive that proves he isn’t quite the bumbling, clueless hick of caricature will be sufficient to make nice with the various powers that could influence the perception of his presidency. But he will have to be aware that there are deeper currents and different ambitions at play.
If American foreign policy makers are shrewd and imaginative many of these currents and countercurrents need have little negative impact on the United States. But based on what we have seen so far it seems unlikely that this country will do much more than bumble and stumble within the confines of conventional wisdom. We might get lucky many if not most of the larger ambitions of various would-be world-bestriders are likely to come to naught through their own miscalculations but we’re unlikely to be notably shrewd or strategic.
Behind European expressions of discontent with Bush’s positions on specific issues like the Kyoto global warming treaty and missile defense is the fact that many leaders in Europe see the continent becoming increasingly united politically, economically and militarily and increasingly independent of the United States. This shift was captured nicely in an article by Robin Wright of the L.A. Times, who noted that "Europe is emerging as an increasingly united community that often speaks with a louder single voice and stakes a claim to a wider role in world affairs than ever before."
Europeans are said to be eager to move beyond the image still cherished by Americans that Europe is a ragtag batch of countries that was saved from fascism by the Americans, revived economically by American generosity and protected from the communist menace by American troops. To this end efforts are underway not just to further the essentially economic integration of the European Union, but to develop a European defense force complementary to but separate from NATO.
"The progress made toward a European defense is irreversible," French president Jacques Chirac said during the NATO meeting with Bush in Brussels, "since it is part of a deep-seated and more general trend toward European integration. The emergence of a European Union fully taking its place on the international scene is now a historical fact of life."
Well, maybe. But leaders seldom make such confident statements about inevitable trends unless they are a little insecure about whether such trends are really inevitable or not. The trend toward European unity is entrenched rather nicely at the level of most political leaders, but it is somewhat weaker and even meets some resistance at the level of the people.
Italy just elected Berlusconi, who doesn’t seem to be much of a Greater Europe team player. Irish voters just gave the concept a kick in the pants. The concerns about unaccountable rule from a strong central government that made Haider a prominent figure in Austria for a while are still there. And despite Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for European unity significant sectors in the UK have their doubts, which could become more politically effective.
Europe has still not become the United States of Europe, and it might never happen. Interestingly, this is in part because the central authorities in Brussels and Strasbourg have established a species of control that is more bureaucratic than political.
The distinction is important. Centralized political institutions are seldom effectively responsive to the people or to public opinion, but they do create the illusion of some semblance of accountability. Bureaucratic rule through the issuance of regulations and guidelines by faceless functionaries doesn’t involve even a pretense of accountability to those who are ruled, and can often engender resentment rather than resignation.
The idea of a separate European military force independent of NATO has never seemed especially alarming to me as an American. Indeed, if it were to lead to the demise of NATO as an effective institution it might not be a bad development. If it reduced the lust to feel responsible for problems in places like the Balkans it might be healthy.
A number of observers, including William Safire and Stratfor.com have suggested that Putin was shrewd to the point of snookering Dubya in the outwardly pleasant and friendly meeting between the two. Safire notes that Putin traveled to Shanghai and set up a quasi-alliance with China before meeting with Bush, signaling awareness of the importance of Asia to the United States and deftly threatening a superpower-like alliance that could threaten U.S. world dominance unless the US props up the sclerotic Russian economy without any nonsense about human rights for Chechens or NATO expansion.
Stratfor made much of Putin’s unearthing a 1954 document in which the Soviet Union offered to join NATO but was rebuffed. The point was to suggest that Russia might consider joining NATO now, which would change the character of the organization fundamentally and possibly unalterably. Supposedly, Putin’s hope is that the idea of Russia in NATO will be vetoed by Bush rather than the Europeans, which would give Putin a chance to split off some Europeans from the United States in light of US intransigence and indifference to offers of peaceful cooperation.
"Putin means to stabilize his country’s power," Stratfor says. "The Russian president has shown he wants to do business with the United States and is giving this every chance to work knowing that if it doesn’t succeed, he will always be welcome in Beijing. Thus, despite his country’s ongoing economic woes and American hegemony, Putin left Slovenia having defined the terms of bargaining between the world’s solitary superpower and the great power in Russia that the United States cannot afford to ignore."
Few of these geopolitical machinations would be of great concern to the United States if this country had decided, in the wake of the end of the cold war, to look after its own freedom and prosperity and not to try to fix every problem or abuse it happened upon in the rest of the world. If we were moving, as seemed possible during the first few weeks of the Bush administration, toward less intensive political and military involvement in the rest of the world the halting political unification of Europe and the ambitions of Russia to restore the respect it thinks it deserves as a traditional great power would be interesting but not alarming. The United States could be a fascinated observer, occasionally offering some general advice about the importance of respect for private property and the rule of law, but declining to try to fix everybody else’s problems for them.
However, Mr. Bush seems to have been seduced by or have fallen into the standard vision of ever-larger political institutions as desirable and doable. In Warsaw, just before he visited with Putin, he spoke of the new Europe as "a great alliance of liberty" to be fortified by an expanded and updated NATO. The new united and integrated Europe is to be "the House of Freedom whose doors are open to all of Europe’s peoples, and whose windows look out to global challenges beyond."
Although the speech was said to have drawn applause, it is more than passing strange that an American president should view himself as the proper person to articulate Europe’s dreams. It doesn’t seem to have taken Bush long to view himself as not simply the President of the United States but as the de facto Emperor of the World, assuming responsibility for handling problems worldwide.
It is odd to view this vision as friendly to freedom. Freedom thrives most robustly in decentralized structures where accountability to the people who are the supposed beneficiaries of wise rule is fairly direct and immediate. Large, centralized structures are almost always less accountable and less concerned about such ephemera as personal freedom than structures close to the people and capable of being thrown out of power fairly readily.
International politics has always been more about power than about freedom, of course. But it was possible to hope during the first few weeks of the Bush administration that some pulling back from international meddling was on the agenda. That seems no longer to be a likelihood.
Maybe if American presidents were prohibited from making foreign trips … ?
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