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Kupchan: Iran Should Top Agenda of U.S.-EU Summit

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 15, 2006

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Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow and director for European studies at CFR, says when President Bush meets with top European leaders in Vienna on Wednesday, the ongoing dialogue with Iran is likely to top the agenda, along with the efforts to keep the trade-expansion talks alive and the European participation in military actions in Afghanistan.

Kupchan says overall relations with the United States have improved significantly since Bush's reelection in 2004. But he says that phenomenon is reflected primarily by the leaders, and not by the European public. "This outreach is more an elite phenomenon than it is a public phenomenon," he says.

We are getting into summertime when various summits take place, including a G-8 conference in St. Petersburg in July. Preparatory to all of that, there is a summit of the European Union countries taking place right now. President Bush is going to Vienna to meet with some of the European leaders of Europe. Is there anything significant on these agendas?

I think the three upcoming summits are, in many respects, going to be focusing on separate issues. The current European summit is focused very much on internal European matters. In particular, how to deal with the failure of the European constitution to be ratified and what Europe's next steps should be, particularly in terms of its internal institutions but also on enlargement of the European Union.

Is there a desire to postpone any further vote on the constitution? I think I read that because the French and Dutch electorates voted it down last year, there is little enthusiasm for reviving it.

There has not been any formal decision taken about how to proceed. But it is safe to say the de facto debate over the constitution is suspended, and the document is—for all intents and purposes—a dead letter. Nothing is likely to happen between now and next spring when the French elections are held because the French government is effectively in a state of paralysis. There have been excessive efforts to try and figure out 'what next?' I think it is safe to say there is a collective decision to kick the can down the road for now [On Friday, the EU nations put off any action on reviving the constitution until 2008].

President Bush said the other day there is some rough sledding ahead on trade issues with the Europeans. He is talking about trying to rescue the Doha round of trade expansion talks, right?

That is correct. There was a quiet success in the last few weeks. Congress voted to change a particular section of U.S. tax law, what was called the FSC tax, which the WTO had ruled against after the case had been brought by the Europeans. This is essentially a tax subsidy for American companies with operations overseas. With the change of the law here, that dispute has been taken care of, and the European Union will no longer receive punitive sanctions. The bigger issue though is Doha and the inability thus far of the United States and the European Union to agree on agriculture, changing the way that agricultural products are subsidized in the international marketplace.

The problem is Europeans have higher subsidies than Americans?

The two sides have somewhat different approaches to the issue of support for farmers. In France, as well as some other EU countries, it is an extremely sensitive issue politically. It is because of the economic stakes but also because of the symbolic politics that farmers in France remain emblematic of the traditional French way of life. It is probably unlikely that there will be any significant breakthrough on this issue.

What else does Bush want to talk about? The situation with Iran?

I think the Iran situation will be at the top of the agenda, and the main goal for the summit will be to demonstrate solidarity, and to ensure the United States and the European Union appear to be in lockstep. I do not think that will present much of a challenge because we are still in the early stages of the game.

And we are still waiting, of course, for some Iranian response.

I do not think there will be much advance of this debate between now and next week. Therefore, the leaders in Vienna will not be confronted with the difficult choices they may face later this summer.

Let's step back for a moment. For a while, European relations with the United States were very tense, particularly because France and Germany opposed the Iraq invasion. Since then, things have eased up. Are we in a honeymoon period with the Europeans, or is this all superficial?

I think it is a little bit of both. What has happened over the past year and a half since Bush's reelection is that both sides have reached out to the other. From the American perspective, I think the Bush administration realized that the United States had found itself quite isolated in the world and it needed help on just about every front, not just in the Middle East but everywhere. The best place to look for that help was Europe, and the trip Bush made to Brussels in early 2005 soon after reelection was a sign of that.

Then there has been a shift across the board back to the center here in Washington. That is reflected both in the fact that the Bush administration has agreed to get involved in diplomatic negotiations, including with Iran; it has been demonstrated through a shift in personnel. People like [former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz and [former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas] Feith, who were hardliners, moving on, and people who could be described as traditional internationalists rising in influence: [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice, [Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas] Burns, [Deputy Secretary of State Robert B.] Zoellick, and [Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Robert M.] Kimmitt.

This has all pushed American policy back in the direction Europeans are comfortable with. On the other side, the rift with America proved to be very painful for Europeans and very divisive. It caused much heartache in Europe because countries did not want to have to choose between the European Union and the United States. In the end, the Iraq war forced them to. In many cases, Europeans had an overly rosy view of life after Pax Americana, life without the American protector. They got a taste of what that would look like, and they did not care for it. Therefore, the Europeans have reciprocated the outreach that has come from Washington.

One caveat I would make is Bush remains very unpopular among the European public. This outreach is more of an elite phenomenon than it is a public phenomenon. That is why we are likely to see European leaders, even those that are close to Bush like [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, going out of their way to push back, do things like raise the Guantanamo detention center or Abu Ghraib or in general the detainee issue because they need to do that to keep their populations on board.

Parenthetically, is there something about Texan presidents that get Europeans turned off? Lyndon Johnson was a very unpopular president when I was a lot younger.

There is no question that Bush, in his manner and his style, is somewhat off-putting to the Europeans. In some respects, what makes him quite appealing to many American voters—the populism, the rough edges, you get what you see—those are the same attributes that create trouble for him in Europe.

I suppose that on other issues like Iraq, Europeans are not going to do much more than they have done. Of course in Afghanistan, NATO is sending a large number of troops to replace Americans in the more volatile southern part. I suppose that will be discussed as well?

Yes. As part of the transatlantic truce, the Bush administration has accepted the reality that many members of the coalition are heading for the exits in Iraq. The Bush administration is no longer going out of its way to punish France, Germany, and other countries that oppose the war. On the other hand, there is still hope for help. For example, one issue that is looming on the horizon is whether Germany under Merkel's leadership might agree to start training security in Iraq as part of a NATO mission. There is a NATO mission there [in Germany] already, but the Germans have refused to do it in Iraq. This is an issue that is very volatile in Germany. As you mentioned, there is also the expanding NATO mission in Afghanistan. There the stakes are not just the increase in manpower but the fact that NATO is going to be taking over operations in more dangerous parts of the country. That could mean higher injuries and fatalities.

I take it his trip to Hungary is just a formality?

It is also marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising. Whenever he goes to Europe, Bush likes to stop at a new democracy. He might go to Georgia or to the Baltic or to Hungary. It is part of his democracy promotion program. I think this is more of the same.

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