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Bush Smooths Ties with Europe, but There’s Turbulence on Horizon

July 7, 2006
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In recent months, George Bush has wooed Europe. He has worked together with the European Union to negotiate a halt to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, confront Russia’s determination to wield its energy resources as a political weapon and isolate the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. But results have been slim, and now the attempt at trans-Atlantic harmony looks set for a period of turbulence, just before the Group of Eight Summit on July 15-17 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Start with Iran. Stung by the Iraq war debacle, the Bush administration has been supporting European efforts to negotiate controls on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Bush made explicit his support for this diplomacy this spring, saying he was willing to open direct talks with Iran.

Together, the United States and Europe have presented a package of incentives designed to encourage Tehran to stop its nuclear enrichment. The Iranians say they’re interested, but won’t give a response until August.

On his last trip to Vienna, Bush called that “a long time to wait.” In the past, he also has said he’s not willing to take all military options off the table.

Those hard edges frighten the Europeans, who recoil at any mention of military force. They’re willing to continue talking for as long as necessary with the Iranians, figuring that as long as the Iranians are talking they’re not fighting — though they are pressing ahead, all the while, with their nuclear program.

Similarly, Russia’s renaissance, fueled by high oil and gas prices, frightens Europeans as much as it does Americans. When Moscow cut off gas supplies this past winter in a price dispute with Ukraine, causing shortages throughout Western Europe, European policymakers made energy security a top priority.

Both Europeans and Americans are upset with Russia’s bullying of former Soviet republics, including its decision to cut off imports of wine from Georgia and Moldava. And both Europeans and Americans mistrust the Kremlin’s support for dictatorships in Belarus and Uzbekistan.

Again, though, the reaction on this side of the Atlantic is much less forceful than in Washington. The Europeans have rejected U.S. calls to prepare Georgia and Ukraine for NATO membership, calling such a move provocative.

Europeans buy much of their energy from Russia and are wary of taking too hard a line against their supplier. Germany, for one, is building a new, multibillion-dollar gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea to Russia. The calculation is simple: Europe must help the Kremlin make the huge new investments needed to continue supplying oil and gas, and it must make sure that this energy is directed to the West, not China.

Similar European calculations color policy toward the Palestinians. After Hamas took power, the European Union joined the United States in cutting off funding to the Palestinian Authority. It soon backtracked, however, and found a way to deliver humanitarian aid outside of official channels.

When Hamas and Fatah agreed on a formulation that some saw as implicitly recognizing Israel, the European Union welcomed the move. When Israel moved military forces into Gaza after two Israeli soldiers were killed in a cross-border raid and a third was taken captive, Europe was far more vexed than Washington, with E.U. External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner appealing to Israel to exercise the “utmost restraint.”

Moving ahead, these trans-Atlantic differences are set to sharpen if, as seems likely, Israeli-Palestinian tensions rise. On almost all occasions, Europeans rule out the use of force and criticize Israel for its military response to Palestinian rockets and other terrorist attacks.

This aversion stems from Europe’s painful history last century: Two world wars shattered the continent while negotiations created a peaceful, 25-nation union, where the most violent actions are agonizing talks in conference rooms. This led Europeans to believe that problems elsewhere can be resolved only through discussion as well.

To be sure, Europeans and Americans still can find some common ground. Perhaps the Europeans will agree to take Iran to the United Nations Security Council and impose economic sanctions on Tehran. Perhaps the Europeans will end up, as they did with the Baltics, agreeing to take other former Soviet republics into NATO.

And despite European pressure on the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel, the European Union continues to step back from restoring direct aid to the Hamas-led government.

Since the Iraq war, the United States has become more gun-shy and more open to the European way of conducting global affairs. There’s much to say for a good cop-bad cop routine, with Washington supplying the muscle to make sure that European-inspired negotiations aren’t just hot air.

Yet if the routine brings no results, the United States and Europe will split: For, in the end, the United States isn’t going to turn pacifist.

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