Ugly American

The European view of Bush's drooping approval ratings at home is that there is an international component to the main areas of public concern: environment, energy, and defense. Bush's rejection of the Kyoto protocol on global warming, his emphasis on oil, gas, and nuclear energy production rather than conservation, and his advocacy of a Strangelovian missile defense system all have come under criticism before, during, and after his recent European gambit. Intended to show that Bush could hold his own and even assert American leadership, the European trip instead raised more doubts about his effectiveness on the international stage, and his foreign policy (such as it is).

Bush claimed to find Russian President and former spy master Putin "trustworthy and straightforward." When Bush met with Putin, one suspects, Bush did most of the talking -- so eager to make his positions clear. Putin, on the other hand, waited for Bush to return home, and then made strong policy statements which were not particularly accommodating to the American point of view. Regarding missile defense, probably the Bush administration's top international policy issue, Putin told US correspondents that if the U.S. proceeded without Russian agreement Russia might consider it an abrogation of thirty years' worth of arms treaties, and arm its strategic missiles with multiple warheads (currently banned). As an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times pointed out

Russian and other opponents of antimissile programs have good reason to hope that defense systems will go on failing in tests, eventually burying the whole plan in domestic opposition and ridicule. The Democratic ascendancy in the Senate has increased Russian hopes in this regard. This is one good reason for Russia not to rush into an agreement.

Concerning the Balkans, Putin made a surprise visit to Kosovo shortly after the meeting with Bush, and denounced U.N. plans promoting autonomous government in the region. He asserted that Kosovo was Serbian territory, and should be returned. Bush had attempted to win Russian support for "smart" sanctions against Iraq -- a proposal jointly sponsored by the U.S. and Britain, pending before the U.N. Security Council. While there was no immediate response from Putin during the Bush visit, the measure was withdrawn this week under the threat of a Russian veto. In these an perhaps half a dozen other issues, Mr. Putin seems to have made strategic choices before meeting Bush that were minimally influenced by the encounter. In the words of the Guardian UK "when it comes to international statesmanship, President Bush is an amateur playing in the top professional league."

European uneasiness predates his visit, however, extending by some accounts back to the infancy of his presidency. In addition to concerns over global warming and missile defense, Europeans were appalled by other Bush foreign policy positions including dismissal of the North Korean peace talks, and resumption of bombing Iraq. Bush's cavalier attitude toward the death penalty, and fears of industrial espionage were cause for considerable unease, as well.

While the missile shield has dominated discussions of defense issues, there are disagreements about conventional forces, also. Some in the Pentagon have advocated redeploying to the Pacific up to 120,000 American troops currently stationed in Europe. The Economist notes, "If Mr Bush approves, Europeans might think America was abandoning them." Conversely, the U.S. has expressed skepticism about the European Union's proposal for a rapid response force. There are questions about how it would integrate with NATO, and concern that NATO might have to foot the bill.

Beyond defense are ever-present trade issues. Disputes have moved from products to policies, some with cultural aspects such as acceptable noises levels for airplanes, what constitutes "natural" food, as well as concerns about privacy in telecommunications. On June 5th Bush took preliminary action that could lead to restrictions on steel imports. Europeans have accused the U.S National Security Agency of using their surveillance capabilities to conduct industrial espionage. And the EU has brought a case that could lead to $4 billion in sanctions against the U.S. to the World Trade Organization, disputing foreign-sales corporate taxes.

Some observers are concerned that the surface disagreements conceal a deeper, underlying disagreements, fueled in part by mutual stereotypes. As the Economist puts it

The American stereotype is of a Europe that is economically sclerotic, psychologically neurotic and addicted to spirit-sapping welfare schemes and a freedom-infringing state. The European stereotype is of a gun-slinging, Bible-bashing, Frankenstein-food-guzzling, behemoth-driving, planet-polluting United States, in which politicians are mere playthings of mighty corporations.

One could argue with some justification that Dubya does little to dispel the European stereotype of the U.S. An EU commissioner has told reporters that he is quite sure the Bush policies on global warming and missile defense were dictated by corporate campaign contributors. Similarly, a Bush adviser reportedly forced reassignment of a reporter who characterized a Bush economic plan as "European style." And while European views of America have often mixed admiration and criticism, reaction to Bush is nearly uniformly negative.

One of the underlying issues is that the emergence of the European Union has increasingly focused Europe on itself. By contrast, the need for a missile defense system is rooted in worries about Asia -- most immediately North Korea, but also China. Bush has declared the other principal foreign policy focus of his administration to be the promoting of democracy and trade in the Americas. So, as Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution has suggested, the U.S. and Europe "look at the world in increasingly different ways."

The difference extends beyond one of geographical focus. As the product of treaties and collective institutions, Europeans instinctively apply multilateralism in foreign policy, as well. The Bush administration, on the other hand, is stuck in a cold war era view that sees the world as a conflict of great powers. From that perspective, nationalism, leadership, and military reach are the important factors. International treaties and global cooperation serve only to limit American power. "...[M]any Europeans think that the United States feels that it is big enough and strong enough to ignore international rules when it finds them annoying," the Economist says. The downside for the U.S. is that it can no longer assume that Europe will blindly follow its lead. One recent example involved arms sales to Taiwan. The U.S. had promised diesel-powered submarines to Taiwan -- but the U.S. no longer produces them. They are produced in Germany and Netherlands, but the U.S. did not consult them beforehand, and they refused to fill the order.

In the days leading up the the European trip, the administration undertook a series of policy reversals. On June 5 CIA director George Tenet was dispatched to the Middle East reversing a policy of reduced CIA involvement in peace efforts there (at least visibly). On June 6 National Security Adviser Rice announced that the administration was working "very, very hard" on developing an alternative to the Kyoto protocol. And the following day Secretary of State Powell announced that the U.S. would reopen talks with North Korea that had been suspended since March. Former State Department official Robert Kagan observed to the Washington Post, " [The Bush administration] into office determined to reverse all of those [Clinton administration] policies.... The tremendous extent of campaign rhetoric and eight years of Republican carping cannot so easily be translated into policies. They're now returning to the Clinton status quo."

Clearly the policy reversals were intended to help ease European criticism. It is as yet unclear to what extent they were public relations gestures, and to what extent authentic shifts in position. A report sent to congress on June 29 proposed cutting aid to on global warming reduction programs for developing nations, and called for shifting more responsibility to the private sector. And despite skepticism and opposition from allies, not to mention questions of fundamental technological feasibility, the administration reportedly plans to have at least a limited missile defense capability in place by the end of Bush's term of office.


Tisdall, Simon, "Green Bush fails to flourish"Guardian UK 5 Jul. 2001.

"Wanted: new rules of the road" The Economist 7 Jun. 2001.

Lieven, Anatol "A Delicate Nuclear Balance" NY Times 21 Jun. 2001

Sipress, Alan "New Foreign Policy Ringing In the Old" Washington Post. 10 Jun. 2001

Heilprin, John "Bush Wants to Cut Global Warming Aid" Associated Press 7 Jul. 2001.