Friday, May 26, 2006

Philip Stephens - Blair and Bush will not bridge still-troubled Atlantic waters - FT

Blair and Bush will not bridge still-troubled Atlantic waters By Philip Stephens
>Published: May 26 2006 03:00 | Last updated: May 26 2006 03:00

The Middle East, China, India, globalisation. The other day I listened to a senior official in George W. Bush's administration enumerate Washington's foreign policy concerns. The list was unremarkable. The omissions were striking. Here was another reminder, if one were needed, of just how far the world's strategic centre of gravity has shifted.

Unsurprisingly, the drive to combat Islamist terrorism and to extend democracy in the Middle East headed the list. With fires still raging in Iraq, Iran pressing ahead with its nuclear programme and a continuing stand-off between Israelis and Palestinians, it could scarcely have been otherwise.

The concern about China's rise, the official said, was to ensure it became a responsible stakeholder in the global system. A cynical translation would say this means that, in return for a place at the top table, Beijing accepts the (US-made) rules of the game. Another interpretation might add that at some point China must recognise it cannot indefinitely pursue a values-free foreign policy. Witness its recent role in stalling international action over Darfur.

With India, the US hope is not so much to mould the behaviour of an emerging great power as to build a strong bilateral alliance - not least, though this is always denied, to balance China. As for globalisation, the concern is to ensure that everyone plays by liberal market rules.

The common denominator is that all these preoccupations are located outside what diplomats call the Euro-Atlantic space. The US still has important interests in Europe. It worries about Russia's use of gas as a blunt instrument of foreign policy and about Moscow's interference in the affairs of would-be democratic neighbours such as Ukraine.

Europe, though, is now part of Washington's peripheral vision. For more than four decades, it was the geographical cockpit of a shared strategic imperative. Without the cold war, the transatlantic relationship has become one of choice rather than necessity. If much of the history of the past century was written in Europe, that of the 21st will be made largely in Asia.

During the past year or so we have seen the restoration of good manners between the US and Europe. In different ways both sides have been humbled - America by the limits to its power evidenced by the insurgency in Iraq, Europe by internal divisions and the absence of convincing political leadership. So the French and the Americans have stopped sniping at each other and, with the election as chancellor of Angela Merkel, Germany has repositioned itself as a mediator. Much of the rancour has gone from the argument about Iraq and there has been a significant effort to build a common front towards Iran.

All this is sensible. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, an influential Washington think-tank, makes a powerful case for rebuilding the partnership. At a recent CSIS conference in Germany I heard senior figures from both sides of the Atlantic offer a compelling exposition of the mutual benefits. The shared interest in forestalling Iran's nuclear ambitions should speak for itself. So, too, should a quest to persuade Hamas to forswear violence against Israel in favour of political engagement.

"Should", though, is not the same as "will" or "does". For all that the rhetoric is warmer and the US has rediscovered the mechanics of diplomacy, the sense of distance between the two sides is palpable. Even where they agree on the objective - as in the case of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability - they see the world through different lenses. The impatience for pre-emptive action of the sole superpower still collides with the European predilection for thumb-sucking.

Mr Bush and Tony Blair might be expected to defy this continental drift. Both have been governing in a sea of political troubles and, over time, they have become more candid about some of their differences. But they have dutifully suppressed their different political backgrounds and outlooks in the cause of the transatlantic solidarity.

At their White House meeting this week the two leaders have been sharing some good (in a strictly relative sense) news about Iraq. For the first time since 2003 they see a possible pathway out of the quagmire. The prime minister's visit to Baghdad this week following the formation of a new Iraqi government has hardened the expectation that the troops will soon begin to return home.

We cannot call it a timetable or an exit strategy. A conditional drawdown is as far as officials will go. Whatever the public utterances, though, the two leaders anticipate a steep reduction in the military commitment during the next 12 to 24 months. One scenario sees US forces in Iraq being cut from 130,000 to 100,000 by the end of this year, with a further steady decline throughout 2007. In what condition the departure of foreign forces will leave Iraq - some would say better, some worse - is far less certain.

Mr Blair, meanwhile, will press Mr Bush for a more flexible US stance towards Iran and Hamas. The prime minister is as determined as the president that Iran should not acquire nuclear weapons. But my sense is that he also believes that Iranians should be presented with a worthwhile choice - significant incentives as well as threats. Likewise Hamas. Refusing to treat with a Palestinian authority committed to violence against Israel should not preclude setting out the gains available to Hamas were it to opt instead for political engagement.

The paradox is that, for all the closeness of the personal relationship with Mr Bush, Mr Blair's view on such issues describes almost perfectly the difference between European and American approaches. In a speech in Washington today, the prime minister will call for the reform and modernisation of the United Nations and other institutions central to the multilateral system. Mr Blair, like most Europeans, wants to refurbish and renew the international order created largely by the Americans after the end of the second world war. Though few now believe it, the desire to preserve the global system was one of the reasons he was ready to go to war in Iraq.

Here, however, lies the critical divide with his host. For all that Mr Bush has embraced diplomacy in recent months, his administration still bridles at the constraints of multilateralism. Europeans, including Mr Blair, want a rules-based system of global governance. Mr Bush still cannot see why anyone would want to challenge the pax Americana.


Post a Comment

<< Home