The Victory Lap?

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Bill Clinton has never shied away from displays of dewy-eyed, lip-biting sentimentality — a penchant for drippiness that has often seemed out of place in the rough-and-tumble arena of international diplomacy. But last week, as the U.S. President kicked off his last scheduled European trip, even Clinton's hosts found it hard to resist that melting feeling. After an E.U.-U.S. summit meeting in Lisbon on Tuesday, European Commission President Romano Prodi joked that Clinton was a deserving winner of Germany's Charlemagne Prize, a 50-year-old award honoring contributions to European unity, "because this is a prize given to a European." Then Prodi gazed toward the world's most powerful empty nester. "You belong to our family, really," Prodi said.

It was more than just diplomatic politesse. As Europeans have warmed to Clinton's empathetic, hands-on style over the years, Clinton has cultivated good relations with many European leaders and pushed issues that have broad support in Europe — such as free trade and NATO enlargement — without seeming heavy-handed. A few spats notwithstanding, trade between the two continents now amounts to $450 billion a year, and despite the mixed results of NATO's war in Kosovo last year, European diplomats give Clinton credit for holding the alliance together in a crisis. And on each trip to Europe since his first one in 1994, Clinton has worked a little more charm on the locals. In Lisbon last week he revealed that he had switched musical allegiances from Brazilian bahia to Portuguese fado.

All of this, the White House claims, has put relations between the U.S. and Europe on their best footing in 40 years. "Despite all the static and the McDonald's fires in France," one senior Administration official said, "the state of the transatlantic alliance is really very strong." So while Clinton's jaunt through Europe last week included some serious business — notably a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Clinton's first summit with Vladimir Putin — it was also something of a victory lap. "It's no accident that no American President has ever won the Charlemagne Prize," crowed presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart. "Europeans believe that this President, like no other, has understood the importance of our relationship." Appearing in Aachen, Germany, on Friday to accept the prize, Clinton delivered a valedictory on his achievements: "We lowered trade barriers, supported young democracies, adapted NATO to new challenges and expanded our alliance."

And yet to Europeans, this self-congratulation was somewhat puzzling. For beneath the amicable surface of the Atlantic relationship lie numerous nagging irritations. "Clinton has been the most pro-European President ever," says Charles Grant, director of the London-based Centre for European Reform, "but trans-Atlantic relations are getting worse, not better." On trade, the U.S. and E.U. remain locked in squabbles over Europe's restrictions on American beef and imports from U.S. banana companies — to which the U.S. has retaliated by slapping $300 million in duties on E.U. products. The E.U. for its part has raised objections to U.S. laws which allow large firms to set up offshore operations to avoid paying export taxes, which the E.U. says will amount to a $25 billion subsidy to U.S. companies over the next five years, making them more competitive in the international market. Prodi and Clinton attempted to bang away at the trade disputes last week, but the effort was futile. Sighed one top Administration official: "There's not much about bananas you can do at a meeting like this."

Perhaps they're not such big deals after all. "These are the kind of spats one has among people within a family," says Ivo Daadler, a former National Security Council aide under Clinton. And yet petty food fights can also harden into mutual bitterness. That's why many diplomats warn that the allies' chronic disagreements on security and defense matters, while more abstract and distant, could cause lasting damage. The latest, and potentially most explosive, disagreement surrounds the U.S.'s proposed national missile-defense (NMD) system. For months the Clinton meeting with Putin had been advertised as a showdown over the U.S.'s NMD plans and Russia's resistance to amending the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which bans such defenses. Last week Putin hinted he would offer an alternative to the American missile-defense prototype, but Clinton labored to downgrade expectations. "I would be surprised if we resolved all of our differences on the question of missile defense," he said.

Nor did Clinton allay European misgivings about NMD, which could leave Europe dangerously exposed to nuclear attack even as Americans shelter behind their home-built shield. Although Clinton pledged that the U.S. would share missile-defense technology with Europe, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder suggested that he had not been won over. "It is the sovereign right of our American allies to take the decisions they consider appropriate," Schröder said, but he urged Clinton to consider "the probable consequences for the cohesion of the Atlantic alliance." White House officials last week continued to chalk up jitters about NMD to Europe's "inchoate" knowledge of the American plan — but the U.S. is largely to blame for failing to drum up support among allies sooner.

On the other side, Europe's plans to create a unified foreign policy and security structure outside NATO have received only lukewarm support from Washington. The U.S. hopes to turn over a greater share of the defense burden to the Europeans, but wants to retain some control over any new security body and bristles at the prospect of another unwieldy E.U. bureaucracy. "We support this new self-identity," says one U.S. diplomat, "but not to the degree that it would exclude us and weaken NATO."

That kind of talk continues to discomfit Europe's leaders, largely because it taps into a latent insecurity about the imbalance of power, soft and hard, between the two continents. "The movies are American, the sneakers are American, the cruise missiles are American and the information economy is American," says one U.S. official. "It's only natural that that is accompanied by some backlash." Thanks to the gusts of isolationism that regularly blow from the halls of Congress, Europeans also see the U.S. as a partner too unpredictable to be trusted. Says Daadler: "There is a deep-seated unease in Europe about the nature of the relationship, even though that doesn't translate into an immediate problem."

And that, too, is Clinton's legacy. Despite the plaudits Clinton received last week, some Europeans still fault him for being only selectively engaged — on matters such as Northern Ireland — and for failing to articulate clearly how the U.S. should position itself in a more integrated, increasingly autonomous Europe. Easing those anxieties will be a job for the next U.S. administration. Says Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush's chief foreign-policy adviser: "It's incumbent upon the E.U. to spend some time getting to know us better as an entity and Americans to get to know the European Union better. Most Americans are somewhat confused about the European Union." Watching a new American leader struggle to clear up mixed signals may make Europeans even more nostalgic for Bill Clinton. Or it may cause them to regret that a President who possessed such obvious skills of persuasion allowed such confusion to develop in the first place.

— Reported by Jay Branegan with Clinton and Douglas Waller / Washington