President George Bush had so lowered expectations of how he would perform on his debut outing in Europe this week that by the time he stepped up to the plate, he was playing T-ball. As they had during his first election debate with Al Gore, Bush and his handlers with the help of the media, mea culpa teed up the visit in such a way that by merely showing up, avoiding flubbing his lines and appearing at least conversant in the issues of the day, he could hit a home run. Or at least a creditable base hit.
If President Bush impressed the Europeans, it was not by any feat of charisma, political leadership or by the strength of his arguments, but simply by appearing competent, and firm in his positions. By week's end, the transatlantic division over global warming was as sharp as ever the phrase "we disagree" seldom makes it into communiqués issued after summit meetings, but it was the only way Bush and the European Union leaders could characterize their discussion on the issue. And even after Bush had urged European NATO members to sign on to missile defense, the continent's key players were unconvinced.
Then again, President Bush was never going to turn the Europeans to his way of thinking. And that's less a function of his own abilities as a statesman than of his policy positions on issues such as missile defense and the Kyoto treaty that, while they may well carry the support of a majority of American legislators, are unpalatable to most Europeans. That's not much of a problem for Bush, of course he's the first conservative in the Oval Office since the end of the Cold War, and Europe is not exactly a priority even on the more internationalist side of that equation. That much was underscored, too, in the fact that Bush used some important media time during his EU summit day to trawl for Latino votes back home by ordering the Navy to close down its bombing range of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
And while Bush failed to convince the Europeans, the fact remains that he sets their agenda. Because he can, by virtue of America's gargantuan military power that literally dwarfs that of its combined allies or foes, and by virtue of its status as the premier polluter of the planet's atmosphere. The Europeans may not like his position on missile defense or Kyoto, but by stating both as a fait accompli he has forced them to respond.
Bush made clear from the outset that he's going to build a missile shield regardless, which left the Europeans no room to imagine that Washington could be dissuaded. Of course, the acid test of that position will come in Russia's response, but Bush's approach appears to have worked with the Europeans. They're now resigned to the U.S. building it, and if at Wednesday's meeting with NATO leaders the key European players didn't exactly embrace Bush's concept, they at least began talking about the need for a new strategic framework to confront new threats.
On Kyoto, too, it was President Bush's rejection of the treaty that set the agenda. The differences were sharp and unresolved, as they were always going to be in response to Washington's summary withdrawal from a treaty 10 years in the making that had been signed by the previous president. Of course, only the U.S. could get away with that position if Italy or the Czech republic did that, those countries might find themselves facing sharp economic pressure to relent, but that would be unthinkable in the case of the world's largest economy. So the exasperated Europeans were forced simply to "agree to disagree."
Changing the Tone in Europe
Ultimately, the measure of Bush's success was never going to be how many European leaders he won over, but whether he managed to bridge the "stature gap" so widely discussed back home. Which is why a passable performance must be counted as a victory. In the end, Bush managed to look presidential. And it may be worth remembering that while President Clinton had become a grandee on the world stage by his second term, his beginnings were somewhat inauspicious: At least President Bush didn't follow his predecessor's example of presenting his European counterparts with cowboy boots.