Much of the media coverage of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent trip to Europe seemed to be preoccupied with the new American chief diplomat’s winning style.
Apparently "Chere Condi" has succeeded in charming even those "old" Europeans, including French pundits. But while there is no doubt that Ms Rice, the first African-American woman to lead the State Department, is a very attractive figure who has won the hearts of many Europeans, it’s not clear yet whether she has been able to change their minds about the direction of US foreign policy under President George W Bush.
In a way, one should not be deceived by the good atmospherics that dominated Ms Rice’s charm-offensive to Paris and Berlin and which will probably be quite evident during Mr Bush’s forthcoming trip to Europe. Both sides are trying to create the impression that all they want is to kiss and make up, to put the Iraq war "behind them" and to return to the good old days of transatlantic harmony.
There will be a lot of talk about how the Europeans want to help bring peace and prosperity to Iraq and a few suggestions on how the European Union could assist in that process. Certainly, the perception of successful elections in Iraq and the re-energising of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could contribute to the sense that the Americans and Europeans are starting to mend the transatlantic rift over Iraq and Israel/Palestine. But that the two sides could achieve some level of cooperation on these issues shouldn’t divert attention from the deep geo-strategic gap that will continue to set the former Cold War allies apart. After all, the fact that China and the US are also working together to resolve the North Korean crisis doesn’t turn them into strategic allies.
The strategic reality is that most of the Europeans, not unlike the Chinese and the Russians, don’t want the US to succeed in Iraq. In fact, what the Europeans (and the Russians and Chinese) want "is for the US to continue to have a tough time in Iraq, thereby discrediting Bush’s doctrine of making preventive wars on behalf of disarmament and democracy," explains Nicholas Berry, director of the Washington-based Foreign Policy Forum.
As Dr Berry sees it, the European strategy is not to irritate Washington with bygones, making modest contributions to supporting the creation of a viable Iraqi state, publicly promoting good relations with Washington, but keeping the protracted and expensive burden on the US for "nation-building" in Iraq.
Hence the European governments that opposed the US assault will not bail out Mr Bush and rush to his aid. "Their aid in training Iraqi policemen will be a small contribution a token which creates in America the impression of support but which leaves the US with the heavy burden of providing security and nation building in Iraq," Dr Berry says.
"Our Atlantic partners believe Washington is stuck with Iraq, and that its occupation will continue to be costly in American blood and treasure, thus taking the sheen off of Bush’s military crusade for nuclear disarmament and democracy and countering Bush’s utopian pledge ‘to end tyranny in our world’."
All the Europeans want is to see the new Iraqi government asking the US to leave, with no defence alliance with the US, no American military bases, no control of Iraqi oil, no big success compared to the costs for Bush, no matter how much he claims the success of his war. At the same time, the Europeans including Britain, which is America’s leading ally in the EU are insistent that diplomacy rather than military threats still provides a better chance of reaching a deal with Iran over its alleged efforts to develop nuclear military technology.
The Bush administration has viewed the European process, led by the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany), as futile and thinks Iran is stalling. Ms Rice, during her visit, urged the EU to adopt a tougher stance towards Iran, and to make it clear that Teheran risks United Nations sanctions if it does not halt its nuclear programme. Most observers expect a new crisis in the transatlantic relationship if the US decides to take military action against Iran or give Israel a green light to attack nuclear installations.
It’s quite possible that a growing momentum promoted by Washington towards an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would strengthen those Americans and Europeans interested in seeing some sort of transatlantic detente. But it’s more likely that developments in Iraq and Iran not to mention the willingness of the EU to defy Washington and lift its weapons ban on China all point to a new reality, in which the US and the EU are being transformed from strategic allies to competitors.
February 19, 2005