- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

In an important but hardly obvious sense, the reelection of George W. Bush may have been the best thing that could possibly have happened in 2004 to improve relations between the United States and Europe.

But how can this be? Don’t Europeans after all, dislike or even hate Mr. Bush? Don’t they regard him as a dangerous cowboy prone to religious visions about remaking the world in the image of the United States? Wasn’t the crisis over Iraq the worst breakdown in transatlantic relations in decades?

Moreover, didn’t they love John Kerry, who speaks French? And didn’t he pledge to restore “respect” for America abroad and to work with our allies? And wouldn’t cheering Europeans have turned out in the streets by the hundreds of thousands to welcome President Kerry on his first swing through Europe?

Well, yes. All true. But there would have been a dangerous instability introduced into the transatlantic relationship if Mr. Bush had lost and Mr. Kerry had won. It would have taken the form of the spread of the conviction in Europe that Mr. Bush’s views on foreign policy had been far out of the mainstream and had accordingly been discredited, as well as the spread of the accompanying impression that Mr. Kerry was somehow more a European politician than an American one. Any improvement in transatlantic relations erected on the foundation of these misimpressions was going to come crashing to the ground eventually, and probably sooner rather than later.

What’s striking about the Kerry campaign is how little of Bush strategic doctrine Mr. Kerry opposed. Mr. Kerry was promising a “stronger” America, one with a bigger army, and one determined to win the war against terrorism by waging a more focused and effective campaign against al Qaeda. When Mr. Kerry said that U.S. actions had to pass a “global test,” no doubt music to European ears, he had to spend the following days reassuring Americans that no one abroad would have a veto over his actions as president.

Now, maybe Mr. Kerry didn’t mean it — but if he wasn’t prepared to deliver on his tough talk, he was setting himself up for subsequent defeat at the hands of a candidate who really did mean it. This isn’t just campaign rhetoric: It’s where Americans are, and both candidates knew it. If Europeans concluded that the rhetoric masked a Kerry substance that was very different and understood as such by Americans, they would have been misjudging both American voters and, in my view, Mr. Kerry.

Moreover, it is simply impossible for Americans to promise or for Europeans to expect that American voters will hereafter favor the candidate most to the liking of Europeans. I don’t think it by any means goes without saying that Americans will never again pick the candidate Europeans would prefer, but it is surely folly to base expectations about the future of transatlantic relations on the central premise that the leaders here and abroad will be simpatico. One should add that Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder have certainly done their bit at the level of personality to aggravate matters, but Americans expecting a swift return to smooth sailing under Nicholas Sarkozy in the Champs Elysees and Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin are no less deluded.

No, the essential point is this: There is no stable answer to the question of how we are going to get along with each other that does not take into account the possibility of an American president as unpopular in Europe as Mr. Bush and European leaders as prickly to Americans as Messrs. Chirac and Schroeder. If ever we find ourselves in a condition of exceptional warmth, we should enjoy it, but we shouldn’t develop illusions about it.

The reason is that the cultivation of illusions can come at the expense of more solid and lasting measures that might bring relations back to a “new normal,” one based neither on a state posing a massive external threat (the Soviet Union) nor on the experience of breakdown and discord following Iraq.

Such measures, and such a “new normal,” would take into account the fact that the United States and Europe are committed to living in peace with each other and to the comparable political and social arrangements common to both. They would take note of the vast commercial ties that bind us and that also constitute a common basis of conviction about the desirability and mechanisms of spreading prosperity beyond our borders. They would further note the many ways in which we cooperate well in dealing with common problems, from routine police work to our respective homeland security.

Finally, a “new normal” would acknowledge that while we are bound to disagree from time to time, and sometimes sharply, we are all better off for the effort to try to find agreement first.

All of this is within reach. In fact, it is obvious. And arguably, at least, the best way to get to the obvious is to dispel the clouds of illusion first.

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