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Bush Second Term Repairs Damage to European Relations

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow for Europe Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 16, 2008

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Charles A. Kupchan, CFR’s top Europe expert, says President Bush’s farewell trip to Europe produced statements of friendship and partnership hard to imagine a few short years ago. Kupchan, a Georgetown University professor who headed European Affairs at the Clinton National Security Council, credits a concerted effort in Bush’s second term to repair transatlantic relations. Separately, he notes that Ireland's rejection of the new Treaty of Lisbon, a reformed treaty meant to unify the European Union more closely, was a serious setback to European leaders advocating a more integrated future.

President Bush had a farewell trip to Europe this past week, which seemed to go pretty well.

Well, I think you're right to give Bush's visit a passing grade. The visits with various European leaders went pretty well, and there were statements of friendship and partnership that would not have happened a few years ago.

Is this due to a change in Bush?

It's really a product of the mending of fences that has taken place in Bush's second term. The Bush administration realized that it had made a hash of the transatlantic partnership during its first term, and it has spent a great deal of time and energy trying to repair that partnership, with some results. Certainly we are not back to where we were during the pre-Bush era, but we also have climbed back from the abyss in relations that surrounded the Iraq war. And I think it's quite noticeable that protests that took place in Europe were few in number and muted, whereas a few years ago, thousands of people would turn out to protest against Bush. And it's also safe to say that accomplishments were achieved. I wouldn't call them breakthroughs, but incremental steps forward on policy toward Iran, on some new troop commitments, and financing for Afghanistan.

That was from the British, I guess, primarily? The Germans, also?

No, the Germans have not stepped forward on Afghanistan and I do not expect them to do so. They are having enough trouble sustaining political support for the current mission, not to mention expanding the mission. The British agreed to send more troops to Afghanistan. And when Bush was in Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi indicated that he would like to reduce the caveats on Italian troops. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen.

The caveats are that they can't get engaged in fighting?

There are caveats on the location of Italian troops and on the nature of the missions in which they engage. In fact, most NATO countries have such caveats. And so the questions would be, would Italian troops actually get engaged in the major fighting in the south and in the east? What kinds of restrictions on mission and location is Berlusconi talking about? It's too soon to answer those questions.

While Bush was in Europe, of course, voters in Ireland rejected reforms to the Treaty of Lisbon, putting into doubt whether the Europeans are ever going to get this unity document they're looking for. How did that happen? Why would the Irish reject this Lisbon treaty when eighteen European countries have already approved it?

The main reason that Ireland is the spoiler—the skunk at the party—is that by virtue of a clause in the Irish constitution, the Irish government was obligated to take the Lisbon treaty to a public referendum. All other EU members plan to approve the treaty only through parliamentary ratification. I think it's safe to say that, were other countries to hold public referenda, the treaty probably would fail elsewhere as well. So it's not that Ireland is different from the other EU countries when it comes to support for the Lisbon treaty. It's that it's the only country to have a public vote. The issues that led to the “No” victory were similar to those that led to the “No” victories in the Netherlands and France earlier when they voted on the then-European constitution.

What are these?

They include a fear of the loss of national power to Brussels and concern that an elite-driven process of European integration lacks democratic legitimacy. I think one particular concern the Irish have that is less acute elsewhere is on the defense front. The Irish have always prided themselves on being a neutral country. And their concern is that, if you have a single foreign minister for Europe, and an attempt to create a common defense policy, that Ireland would be dragged into something that looks like a formal military alliance. This was a source of concern to many Irish voters. Also, despite the fact that the Lisbon treaty was much shorter and less dense than the ill-fated constitution, it is still a lot to swallow. And for the average Irish citizen, it was seen as a lot of mumbo-jumbo, not something that had direct relevance to their daily lives. In sum, it's a very serious setback for the EU to have a constitution rejected in 2005, and then the Lisbon treaty rejected after a behemoth effort, to overcome the earlier defeat. This is really a very serious blow. Thus far, the EU officials in Brussels and the leaders of the EU don't know what they're going to do next.

From the U.S. perspective, has the United States supported this idea of a united Europe? Or is it happy to see the Europeans still a little divided?

If you had asked that question four years ago, I would have said that the American foreign policy class, particularly on the right and center right, would have reacted with quiet glee to this failure of the Lisbon treaty. Especially in the wake of the Iraq war, the view from Washington was that a weaker Europe is better than a stronger Europe, because it enables the United States to cherry pick allies—the British, the Italians, the Spaniards, the pro-war coalition. Had there been a common defense policy, Bush might have faced an EU that simply said "no" to the Iraq war, rather than just having the French, the Germans, and other countries reject it. I think that that attitude toward Europe is for the most part gone. Across most of the political spectrum in Washington, there is a view that the stronger the EU is the better off the Untied States will be.

Going back to Bush's trip, I suppose he's been helped out by the new leaders in Germany, France, and Italy.

No question. You have Berlusconi in Rome, Angela Merkel in Berlin, and Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris. You have about as pro-American leadership as you can ask for in key European capitals. I would say Gordon Brown continues to keep his distance from Bush, as Tony Blair, his predecessor, paid a heavy price for being seen as a toady of Washington. That attitude is not reflected at the public level, however. If you look, for example, at the numbers that came out from the Pew poll last week, they suggest a slight uptick in attitudes toward the United States in Europe, but generally unfavorable views of America and American foreign policy in most European countries. And so, public opinion is lagging behind lead opinion. And one key question for the future is: how much difference will a change in U.S. leadership make?

What's your answer?

Well, judging by the Obama-mania that is sweeping Europe, I think there's no question that an Obama victory would lead to a real surge in pro-American sentiment across the EU. A McCain presidency, less so, but I think he is seen as a more centrist Republican than Bush, so there would be a sigh of relief, I think, even if McCain were to win, but nothing of the sort that would accompany an Obama victory. But then reality would set in. After the partying would be over, the two sides of the Atlantic would have to get down to hard work. And there, I think the glass will be partly half full and partly half empty, in that some areas, particularly on climate change, I expect the United States to move much closer to the European view, especially under Obama but probably under McCain as well. But on other issues, such as Iraq and Iran, there may well be not as much of a closure of the minds as some people might hope.

What about trade?

On trade, I think that the relationship is going to get somewhat bumpier, not smoother. On this side of the Atlantic, enthusiasm for free trade seems to be waning, more among Democrats than Republicans. But should the economy continue to suffer, I don't think there will be a real push to include the Doha round or to finalize pending bilateral agreements, such as that between the United States and South Korea. The immediate impact on U.S.-European trade is going to be minimal because that relationship has already been substantially liberalized, but I don't expect to see the resolution of pending and ongoing disputes, for example over the Air Force’s choosing of Airbus over Boeing or over their current dispute about chickens from the United States.

I didn't know there was a dispute on chickens. What is that about?

It has to do with the manner in which American slaughterhouses clean chickens, and whether they meet standards of the European Union. And so, when I say let's imagine Obama or McCain in the Oval Office during the first hundred days, they're going to be consumed by Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. Will they be expending a lot of capital to resolve the chicken dispute with the EU? I wouldn't count on it.

I guess Gordon Brown's announcement today that they were going to put sanctions on Bank Melli, the big Iranian bank, was significant.

The lay of the land appears to be the following. The EU and the U.S. are prepared to make one more run at negotiations with Iranians. That package was put forward to Tehran over the weekend by the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. And it appears to have been rejected by Iran right off the bat. It was predicated upon a suspension of enrichment of uranium. But, from what we can gather, there are discussions that are continuing. The plan that appears to be taking shape is that the United States and its EU partners would move forward outside the context of the U.N. Security Council. In other words, they would not be going back to the U.N. for a fourth resolution. They would rely upon the existing three resolutions to take independent steps to clamp down on Iranian financing, and to shut down on the ability of Iranian banks which finance projects inside Iran. And that is part of the rationale for Brown's announcement about freezing the assets of a major bank. You know, the Iranians have already taken some steps to deal with this. Last week, they began to move their assets to Asian banks and to commodities, like gold. And so, it's unclear whether a kind-of banking sanctions regime would have the same effect that it did, for example, on North Korea. It helped convince Pyongyang to negotiate. Iran has more financial options than did North Korea.

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