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Bildt to Last?

He's the diplomat Europe loves to hate. And he's only got five months left.

DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister and the man now coordinating Europe’s foreign policy — insofar as it has one — has everything going for him. He’s telegenic, charming, experienced, and ambitious. Savvy when it comes to the media, he has a cunning, deft touch for geopolitics. One month into Sweden’s six-month presidency of the EU, Bildt has already provided a pleasant contrast to the equivocating, dissembling politicians that usually serve as Europe’s public face. To put it kindly, he’s a rare commodity among his colleagues in Brussels these days.

That, however, is precisely the problem: Bildt is too damn good. Qualified, robust, and charismatic, Bildt is an odd fit for an EU paralyzed by the need for consensus among its member states. Before he ever came to Brussels, the assertive Swede had already upset some of the EU’s heavyweights. The trouble began in Germany, which doesn’t care for Bildt’s career-long tough tone on Russia. France wasn’t keen on Bildt’s vigor for EU expansion into the Balkans and Turkey. He’s ruffled feathers in Spain for marshalling Sweden’s recognition of Kosovar independence. And Cyprus didn’t take kindly to Bildt’s suggestion that it may have provoked the Turkish military invasion that continues to territorially divide the island nation.

So while Europe watchers are enjoying the Carl Bildt show in Brussels, it’s no surprise that his colleagues in the EU bureaucracy are already angling to ensure he’s denied any opportunity to stick around past his current six-month stint. The EU will likely be in the market for a robust foreign minister next year, if the Lisbon Treaty is passed as expected. And although European policymakers unanimously acknowledge that Bildt is qualified for the post, everyone knows that he won’t be tapped. He would never survive the horse-trading negotiations that member states partake in to divvy up EU portfolios.

The probable brevity of Bildt’s time in Brussels speaks to the quiet aspirations of today’s EU — and its aversion to anyone who tries to upset the status quo. Bildt has run afoul of the upside-down value system currently framing Europe foreign policy. His preference for a unified EU, acting as a confident strategic actor on the international stage, crosses a de facto red line for states loathe to see the EU chart a bold course. The 60 year-old Bildt, who came of age as a thinker at a time when politicians and intellectuals sought refuge from war in the power of international organizations, embraces the EU as a means to oversee the continent’s wars, peace and security. It’s an ideal he’s lived out, partnering with Richard Holbrooke in Dayton to bring an end to the Bosnian war in 1995 and later serving in Sarajevo as an envoy, first for Europe and then the United Nations.

Back then, Bildt was not so out of place. The late 1990s were heady times for the EU. European countries had successfully fought together in Kosovo – a big test for the Union. And in 1999, when Joschka Fischer, then Germany’s foreign minister, gave a speech at Berlin’s Humboldt University outlining his vision of a deeply integrated, "federalized" Europe, policymakers seriously considered moving in that direction. Indeed, earlier that same year, the EU had agreed to appoint a "high representative" to coordinate the union’s common security policies. The momentum was toward greater cooperation at home and more dynamic action abroad.

But as elsewhere, the September 11 attacks changed everything. Ulrike Guérot, director of the Berlin office of the European Council of Foreign Relations, calls that day the "tipping point" back toward a quiet, decentralized Europe. With the United States demanding quick commitments and signs of support for first "the global war on terror" and later the divisive Iraq campaign, European member states lost confidence that the EU could represent all their interests. Some countries joined the "coalition of the willing," and others began to more nakedly pursue their own national interests in foreign policy. Trust unraveled, and the spirit of compromise was drained from agenda-setting meetings. Countries were more apt to employ their veto rights than before.

Into this circular firing squad steps Bildt, in an EU hierarchy where the first line of any bureaucrat’s job description is to avoid offending member countries’ national interests. That means any prospective EU foreign minister is going to have to be a blank slate, and needless to say, Bildt doesn’t qualify.

For a start, Bildt’s rhetorical gifts and media savvy are a problem as far as the big member states are concerned. The new office of high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy will have more autonomy to set the EU’s foreign-policy agenda, more money to pump into it, and a newly developed European foreign service to pursue it. France, Germany, and Britain dread the headache of taming an official who might be inclined to independently set foreign-policy goals. Their (un-visionary) vision of a model High Representative more closely resembles the incumbent Javier Solana — an uninspiring public figure who has always emphasized behind-the-scenes consensus- building among European member states.

Bildt’s strong connections to the United States don’t help, either. Many of those with a stake in common European foreign policy believe in an independent Europe, one that’s generally distrustful of Washington and prepared to distance itself from the United States at a moment’s notice. In contrast, Bildt has made the transatlantic relationship a hallmark of his career. In fact, he first made his mark in foreign affairs pleading for closer ties between the United States and Sweden. In the 1980s, he challenged the Cold War foreign policy consensus in Stockholm, arguing for a firmer stance against the Soviet Union after its submarines allegedly entered into Swedish maritime territory. His image in Sweden has occasionally suffered for his Atlantic aficion — not least, two years ago, when it came to light that he was a member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which lobbied for the assault on Baghdad.

For now, Bildt is trying to make all he can of his six months near the top of the EU hierarchy. His agenda is ambitious. He’s promised Iceland expedited entry into the union, and made it a priority to improve ties with countries on the EU’s eastern border. Bildt is also working the diplomatic circuit hard to ensure a good showing at the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen at the end of the year.

Few doubt that he will impress. Even pronounced Bildt skeptics, like German diplomats, are glad that someone with his knowledge and experience will be at the helm to manage the tricky negotiations that will follow the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty — or to lead crisis negotiations should it fail to pass. The same crowd, of course, is also happy that Bildt will be packing his things and returning to Stockholm at year’s end.

In truth, it’s fitting that he won’t be sticking around Brussels. Bildt might represent the public figure that today’s Europe needs, but he’s far better than what it deserves.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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