Feature

Grading the President: A View From Western Europe

At one level, President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, echoing Mark Twain’s favorite quip about Richard Wagner’s music, has been better than it sounded. Bush’s plans for a national missile defense system and NATO expansion were pursued without damaging the emerging close relationship with Russia. The initial tensions with China gave way to practical cooperation. ...

At one level, President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, echoing Mark Twain’s favorite quip about Richard Wagner’s music, has been better than it sounded. Bush’s plans for a national missile defense system and NATO expansion were pursued without damaging the emerging close relationship with Russia. The initial tensions with China gave way to practical cooperation. Triumphalism over the quick military victory in Afghanistan was replaced by a sober, if somewhat halfhearted, commitment to nation building. In North Korea, the administration demonstrated restraint despite continuous provocation. The new national security strategy turned out to be both more comprehensive and more moderate than much of the administration’s earlier rhetoric, including the contentious section on preemption. Congress finally settled the United States’ long outstanding dues to the United Nations. In September 2002, the president endowed the U.N. Security Council with the task of disarming Iraq instead of opting for unilateral action. In doing so, he secured the unanimous approval of Resolution 1441, which the White House later claimed provided a sufficient legal basis for moving against Iraq with military force.

Yet as the subsequent decision to invade Iraq regardless of Security Council resistance was to underline, no president before Bush has done so little about, in former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s words, converting power into consensus. The September 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath confirmed what Europeans had feared during the initial months of Bush’s tenure: This administration has time for allies only if they agree with its policies. Americans think the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon changed the world, but those events changed only Americans. What has disturbed Europeans most has been the reckless willingness of this administration, so evident in its conduct over Iraq, to jettison many of the traditional means for dealing with hostile forces — persuasion, pressure, deterrence, containment, and arms control — and to downgrade the security organizations that have served the West well for so long.

As a result, NATO and the European Union, the two institutions that provided cohesion among Western nations and cultivated European acceptance of U.S. leadership for half a century, are now in deep crisis. The White House instructed Europeans that the United States’ objectives, not the NATO alliance, define the "coalition of the willing" — a brutal reminder of Europe’s insufficient military and political weight vis-à-vis the world’s number one strategic power. As such, NATO has ceased to be the locus for trans-Atlantic strategic consultation and coordination. And for the first time since 1950, a U.S. administration no longer cares for European integration and even does not mind undermining it.

What may have been, in September 2001, the initial reaction to a traumatic experience, has hardened into a firm trend. The United States under Bush reserves the right to change the rules, and those who are not with the United States are treated as if they are against it. If the country’s European allies continue to seek close relations with the world’s leading power, it will be out of cold strategic calculation, not sympathy. This mood is only reinforced by the sense of failure felt by Europeans over their inability to cohere in the face of U.S. supremacy. The fabric of trust and respect no longer drapes the relationship. The extent of the damage wrought by Bush will become apparent when the United States finally realizes it needs friends, not just followers.

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