Europe's gamble: Waiting for Kerry

As ever I love the subject of transatlantic relations, this article is a few days old but I’ll stick it up anyway.

Will Europeans be happier if Kerry is elected? And will it improve relations?

John Kerry’s mildly impolitic remark in March about the extent to which European “leaders” are hoping he beats President George W. Bush misses the more important fact about how wide and deep Europe’s rejection of Bush’s self-defeating know-it-all-ism is.

What is coming from the top of European countries’ establishments reflects a pervasive view all over the European street. The revulsion at America’s conduct in Iraq is but a part of a deeper reaction to official U.S. behavior across a wide range of important issues, from the environment to human rights.

In Europe, though, the reaction against Bush’s failed leadership has reached the dangerous point where far too many people have simply given up on the possibility of change for the better and are simplistically waiting (not just hoping) for the American election in November.

A mere glance at the calendar of upcoming events in Europe and in Iraq shows why this attitude is ill advised: There is simply too much of a pivotal nature immediately ahead to justify sitting back and waiting for a presumed change for the better next January that may end up asking much more of Europe than many of its leaders and citizens appear to realize. There is too much work still to be done or at least tried.

After two weeks roaming the four Nordic countries – Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland – to exchange views with colleagues, elites in and out of government, and citizens, I find no way to overstate the rejection of Bush’s leadership. It involves opposition not simply to the invasion of Iraq last year but to the American occupation as well. It involves more than opposition to the Bush position on international environmental cooperation and the enforcement of human rights standards but to the Bush style of imperious rejection even of the idea of multilateral work on issues of obviously common concern.

Symbolically, at least, this is going to cost Bush votes. On a flight here from Oslo, my wife and I chatted with a Norwegian energy industry official with dual citizenship (he was born in Massachusetts while his father was working at Harvard) who is planning to jump through all the legal hoops necessary to cast his first vote for president this year.

I also spent a few hours in Norway with an army veteran just 30 years old who has forgotten more about nation-building than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will ever know from his service wearing the United Nations blue beret in Beirut, Bosnia, Kosovo and Africa. In Rumsfeld’s world view, this veteran is part of “old Europe,” but his ground-level understanding of the mechanics of helping broken societies back on their feet has far more relevance to today’s Iraq than the defense secretary’s frantic scramble to save his political skin.

While I was in Europe there were two important political developments that underscored the importance of Kerry’s offhand comment. One was the flat-out rejection by the French of any possibility of sending troops to Iraq this year, no matter the diplomatic events that might still unfold. The other was the publication of a poll in Britain showing nearly 2-to-1 support for the proposition that British troops should be pulled out of Iraq after the scheduled transfer of limited sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government in July.

Here in the Nordic world, the governmental situation is at best mixed. Norway’s small contingent in Iraq will come home next month, while Denmark has agreed only to extend the presence of its nearly 500-person force (under British command) for another six months.

The overarching, wait-and-see mood on the Continent tied to the presidential election makes no sense, however. The summit season is almost at hand, involving not only NATO but the Group of Eight advanced industrial nations and the efforts at the United Nations to construct a new Iraq policy as the July 1 sovereignty deadline approaches. It seems to me that this calendar makes vigorous European engagement with the Bush administration (the past estrangement notwithstanding) essential. Whatever happens in the close presidential election, the substantive die may already be cast by next January, and my sense from Washington is that an increasingly election-obsessed Bush may be more likely to listen to the rest of the world over the next, crucial six weeks.

Waiting and seeing also neglects the fact that Kerry plans to ask a great deal of Europe in a more traditionally multilateral strategy if he should be elected. It is too easy to sit back now and criticize when a failed occupation of Iraq would involve important European as well as worldwide concerns. It is much more difficult to explore every avenue of possible cooperation now, with so much at stake, but it is the route Europeans should be taking.

In the end, should Kerry be elected, it is more than possible that a new U.S. attitude after Bush’s failings will have as much if not more impact on the next crisis in the region – over the Israeli-Palestinian mess or over Iran – as it does on the current one in Iraq.