A Good Week's Work

Robert Kagan
The Washington Post
June 18, 2001

You'd never know it from the "Backslapping Bush Achieves Nada" headlines, but the president actually accomplished a lot in Europe last week. No, he didn't single-handedly bridge the transatlantic culture gap. But European flapping over the "toxic Texan" got more press play than it deserves.

Don't worry about a transatlantic crisis: European leaders don't have time for one. When Americans aren't around, they live in a trance of Euro-solipsism. And when Bush left the continent last week, they went right back to jousting and jostling over their favorite obsession: themselves, or (more formally) the future of the European Union. The American president, on the other hand, did what they couldn't do: He laid out some big ideas for the next decade of transatlantic policy. He was even -- dare one say it? -- visionary. Ironically, the same Bush portrayed in the European press as a knuckle-dragger did well precisely because he ignored the advice of conservative supporters both inside and outside his administration. Hardy Bush boosters such as my colleague Charles Krauthammer tried to fit the president out with a new "Bush doctrine" of "humble" American unilateralism, designed to "maintain, augment and exploit" American predominance. How the United States can maintain global predominance without a healthy set of alliances, or how we can purport to lead those alliances while proclaiming a policy of unilateralism, "humble" or otherwise, Krauthammer did not explain. Nor did he explain how we could build an effective missile defense against Iraq and Iran without allied cooperation and access to allied territory.

But no matter. Bush rejected Krauthammer's friendly suggestion. "I am not a unilateralist," Bush declared in Europe. He wanted to prove that the United States is a "loyal ally and friend."

And he did prove it, with more than words. In fact, Bush left NATO a lot healthier than he found it last week because he rejected the counsel of some of his advisers that the United States start pulling its troops out of the Balkans soon, with or without the allies. The "no-more-peacekeeping" doctrine of the Republican Congress had been pushed during the campaign by Condoleezza Rice, with her call for a military "division of labor" within the alliance, and more recently by Donald Rumsfeld, with his premature declaration that the American military mission in Bosnia was over.

Last week Bush deep-sixed those bad ideas and sided with Colin Powell, who's been doggedly trying to repair the damage done in Europe by his colleagues. "We went in together and we will leave together," Bush said, "and I swear to you again today that I will keep that promise." Bush didn't rule out the possibility that NATO forces might be needed in Macedonia.

Bush dodged another conservative folly when he refused to treat the European Union as America's newest and most dangerous enemy. American and British conservatives have gone ballistic over the EU's meager efforts to put together a minuscule "Rapid Reaction Force." You'd think this force of 60,000 troops, which still exists only in European imaginations, was about to drive the United States off the continent.

Andrew Sullivan, the New Republic's in-house Bush fan, recently suggested, in a bout of geopolitical dementia, that the EU could become America's "most formidable competitor since the Soviet Union." But Bush eschewed hyperpower hyperventilation. The "United States would welcome a European force" that was "properly integrated" with NATO, Bush said, assuming EU members spend the money to build "real capabilities." No panic, no hostility, just appropriate skepticism about a European "air-ball," as Powell recently put it.

And for all the headlines suggesting otherwise, Bush really did make progress on missile defense. Britain's Tony Blair all but endorsed it, declaring that "there are highly unstable states developing nuclear arsenals, and we have to look at all ways, including missile-defense systems, of countering that threat." Bush won support from Italy, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Turkey and some other European governments -- and, yes, they count, too.

Even French and German grumbling hardly amounted to the kind of defiance American journalists trumpeted. Did anyone think France's Jacques Chirac would publicly endorse any American plan on any subject? Bush even found a surprisingly open-minded Russian president in Slovenia on Saturday -- which makes Chirac's opinions irrelevant. The truth is, missile defense faces a smoother ride in Europe than in the Democratic-controlled American Senate. Last week's trip may have been a turning point in the selling of Bush's missile defense system -- assuming Rumsfeld's Pentagon actually can make the thing work.

Even more historic, however, was Bush's ambitious outline for the future of NATO enlargement. Anyone who wondered whether Bush was thinking big can stop wondering. In a Reaganesque speech in Warsaw, Bush announced that "All of Europe's new democracies, from the Baltic to the Black Sea . . . should have the same chance for security and freedom" that the current members of NATO have: "No more Munichs. No more Yaltas."

Champagne corks were popping in Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius, and rightly so. Bush all but endorsed Baltic membership in the next round of enlargement. This from a president whose Cabinet contains not a single passionate devotee of NATO enlargement.

All in all, it was a good week's work -- heavy lifting, as State Department types like to say. Strange as it may seem given this president's limited experience and, until now, limited interest in Europe, Bush actually has offered both Europeans and Americans a vision of a different political and strategic future. And it's not a future where the United States goes it alone.

The writer, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.