Wednesday, 21 June 2006

Fiesty Exchange in Vienna

There's an interesting article in today’s Financial Times about the emerging European assertiveness toward the US. It is clear that the wounds of the Iraq war are not going to heal any time soon, and a change in Washington’s tone toward Brussels isn’t going to bring Old Europe back into the “lapdog camp.”

Nowhere was this more evident than in today’s fiesty exchange between Bush and European reporters during Bush's visit to Vienna to meet with EU leaders. Although he opened his statements with an emphasis on how far he had come from the days in which his administration had shown disdain for Europe and its diplomacy, pointed questions from reporters soon drove him into a defensive posture, the following being two of the more nasty retorts:

"That's absurd!" Mr. Bush said when asked at a news conference about the
belief by many Europeans that the United States is a bigger threat to world
peace than Iran.
Speaking after meeting with leaders of the European Union, Mr.
Bush returned to that theme when asked about reports that the United States had
established a network of secret prisons for terror suspects with the cooperation
of some European countries. "For Europe, Sept. 11 was a moment; for us, it
changed our thinking," he said, his voice rising and his face becoming flushed.
"I'm not going to forget. I will be steadfast."
Mr. Bush acknowledged that many people in Europe disagreed with his decision to invade Iraq. But he lashed back, pointing out that the United States provides more money than any other nation for fighting H.I.V. in Africa and was dedicated to promoting democracy around the world. "Some people think it's O.K. to condemn people to tyranny," he said.
The H.I.V. statement is remarkably disingenuous. While it is true the US provides more money than any single nation, the EU as a whole provides much more, and that would be the more logical comparison. Percentage-wise, most European countries contribute much more than the United States. In addition the EU provides far more money for hunger relief, refugee shelter, and humanitarian aid.

Bush's assertion that September 11th was just a “moment” for Europeans was not received kindly by European papers. September 11th was an attack on the entire Western world, and Europeans understood that. They expressed solidarity with the US after the attacks, understanding its gravity. But US actions and behavior following that event have driven Europe away from it. Bush’s statement of course also shows a complete disregard for the bombings in Madrid and London, as if they were little blips on the radar screen simply because they didn’t take place in the US.

His implication that Europeans turn a blind eye to despotic regimes in their efforts to pursue diplomacy rather than force is a bit of the pot calling the kettle black. The US frequently practices selective indignation about despotic regimes, only condemning those which refuse to tow the US line. One only needs to look at the United States’ steadfast support for Central Asian republics to see that.

But these comments, of course, will only harden European resolution to further distance itself from the United States. One interesting outcome of the Iraq war is that it could give Europe a nudge toward becoming independent of US hegemony. Of course many other factors have built up to this moment - the fall of the iron curtain, the success of the euro, the strengthening of the EU – but it seems as if the Iraq war really crystallized the profound cultural differences between Europeans and their counterparts in the colonies. It’s something they knew before, but didn’t understand until they were horrified by the American public’s blind obedience in the run-up to the war.

And EU officials are not hesitating to point out these differences. Just look at some of these quotes. EU officials are openly scathing about everything from Guantanamo to US 'democracy building' to our sudden interest in what we’ve been doing to the planet for the past 50 years. The Americans, in response, are being surprisingly receptive. They’ve finally realized they have to be. It just came over the wire that Bush just said in Vienna he wants to close Guantanamo and send the inmates back to their own countries. Perhaps Europe won this round?

I’m reading “The European Dream” right now by the way, and I really recommend it. It’s similar to “The United States of Europe” but it goes more into the fundamental cultural differences that have shaped European society and created the very different social model they have. Whether or not this social model is sustainable is an argument left for another book, but it’s an interesting presentation of the value system in Europe that’s so different from the values of the US. It is exciting that in my adult life there could potentially be a third superpower in addition to US and China, a counterweight to the ambitions of the other two. But in order for this to happen, Europe must ween itself off of its military dependency on the US.

I’m curious to see if Bush gives any indication on whether visa restrictions for Eastern Europeans coming to the US are going to be eased at all. That’s been a major policy goal for the EU.

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