On his recent travels through Europe, U.S. President George W. Bush tried to put his best face forward. He was as polite and well mannered as he could manage. In Paris, he listened attentively to President Jacques Chirac speaking in French. In Eastern Europe, he recalled the various velvet revolutions. He commented on human rights to human rights defenders but did not deign to mention them when he met with President Vladimir Putin.
The United States is trying to fix its official reputation, which was thoroughly ruined by the war in Iraq. However, to really fix something, it will definitely take more than a week of good behavior and more than a couple of pleasant speeches. When Bush reached Bratislava, once part of the communist bloc, he must have felt more at ease, but even in Slovakia, he was greeted by protests, albeit on a smaller scale. The anti-American sentiment in Eastern Europe is also growing, though not at the same rate as in the West.
The most important thing, however, is not what Bush did, but what he felt and what he wanted to gain from his European tour. After the war in Iraq began, the president’s critics in the United States kept repeating that many of the problems in the region were the result of the United States’ unilateral approach and failure to organize a broad coalition in support of this approach. Many even pointed to Bush Senior as an example for Bush Junior to follow, as he managed to wage war in Iraq with the support of the Arabs, Europeans and even the Soviets.
Alas, back in Bush Senior’s day, the world was a very different place. The United States was extremely influential at the end of the Cold War, both politically and morally. It wasn’t that Washington’s foreign policy was all that much different then. It was simply perceived differently.
Over the last decade and a half, new conflicts and interests have emerged that have discredited U.S. rhetoric. Now free from the Soviet threat, Western Europe no longer needs Washington’s protection. The latest in the string of conflicts in the Middle East did not spark the enmity between the Old and New World; it merely brought out the true extent of the contradictions.
Bush’s recent journey did not bode well for international relations. Judging by the White House’s most recent statements, a new armed conflict is brewing in the Middle East. This time, Syria and Iran are feeling the heat. Officially, Washington denies any military plans, but after the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, no one believes it. And the more polite Bush is to the Europeans, the more suspicious they become that the U.S. president is only trying to win their support for his next military escapade.
If this is what Bush is up to, the results are unlikely to live up to Washington’s expectations. An attack on Iran will be interpreted by France, Germany and Russia as a strike against their economic interests in the country. For this reason, Washington should not rely on the Europeans’ silence, let alone their cooperation. Even getting extra cannon fodder from the former communist countries may prove difficult. Everyone wants to get U.S. aid, but it’s far from pleasant to send your boys to pointless wars in the far corners of the earth.
NATO stands to suffer most of all from a further escalation of the conflict in the Middle East. The alliance is an anachronism for many Europeans. Founded during the Cold War to fend off the Reds, it turned into a tool for subordinating Europe’s military organizations to American interests in the 1990s. However, now that the United States is seen as the problem and not the solution, NATO no longer has anything positive to offer the Europeans.
Over the many years of its existence, a powerful bureaucracy that wants to perpetuate itself has emerged in Brussels. It is unlikely that one of the European leaders would be bold enough to openly disrupt the traditions of trans-Atlantic cooperation. The experienced politicians of the Old World are taking a different tack. They are ignoring NATO as much as possible and slowly founding their own military alliance. If the United States attacks Iran, this move away from NATO will get yet another push.
Washington’s only consolation is that the less interest EU leaders show in NATO, the more politicians from former communist states push to get in. For instance, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was recently spotted in Brussels.
Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.