The morning after

Rice's charm offensive may have made European officials feel appreciated again, but many do not see anything new in the Bush agenda she presented.

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She was treated like a movie star wherever she went. Her face launched a thousand front pages. Her every word was news. Europe’s leaders fell over themselves to welcome her. Germany’s chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, looked like a besotted stage door fan. Her speech in Paris was the hottest ticket in town, and her fleeting appearances in capital after capital merely enhanced the perception of glamour and power.

In a few breathless days, Condoleezza Rice became the Bette Davis of diplomacy. If this was a charm offensive, or what one official called a “hug campaign,” it worked a treat. After a long, trying estrangement, Europe felt loved again. And as the curtain came down on the new U.S. secretary of state’s overseas debut, the temptation was to say that finally the Iraq schism was bridged and a new chapter in U.S.-European relations had begun.

This may possibly even be true. “It’s all about mood music and the mood music has definitely changed,” said Denis MacShane, Britain’s minister for Europe. France and other European critics would gladly seize the opportunity of a fresh start proffered by Rice, he predicted. “Everybody’s stretching out to Paris hoping for a new era of diplomacy.”

Signs of a spring thaw abound. This week saw the first NATO meeting on French soil in 40 years, attended by France’s bête noire, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And George W. Bush will dine privately with French President Jacques Chirac, and visit Schroeder, on a visit to Europe this month. Even Spain’s socialists want to kiss and make up. Yet if transatlantic reconciliation is to be soundly based, more than good vibes and presentational improvements will be needed, officials say. Both parties have serious work to do.

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“Bush is making this magnanimous gesture in coming to Brussels. Wonderful. But we want Bush to change,” a senior European diplomat said. “It is not right simply to say we will adapt our agenda to theirs.”

Some influential Americans agree that Iraq exposed a fundamental divergence in worldviews that will not suddenly evaporate overnight. In his book “Of Paradise and Power,” Robert Kagan points to “a great philosophical schism within the west” that for the first time has led “a majority of Europeans to doubt the legitimacy of U.S. power and global leadership.” At the heart of this dilemma lies post-9/11 America’s unprecedented willingness to wield its unmatched might — and Europe’s wish to control it, says Kagan.

William Drozdiak, writing in Foreign Affairs journal, noted that Washington was “learning the hard way that even the world’s sole superpower needs allies.” To keep its friends, the United States must cede “a more activist role” to the E.U., he said.

Rice clearly wants to mend fences. But her statements on key issues were strictly conformist, following well-worn first-term White House positions. If she has her own policy ideas, she kept them to herself.

Despite European pleas for greater engagement in Israeli-Palestinian issues, Rice declined a mediation role and continues to follow the agenda of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Like President Bush, she was tougher on Iran and Syria than was her predecessor, Colin Powell. And her talk of “transformational diplomacy” in pursuit of freedom and shared democratic values — faithfully echoing Bush’s evangelizing inaugural address — suggested, if anything, a hardening ideological stance.

Much store has been set by the departure of administration hawks such as John Bolton and Douglas Feith and Rice’s appointment of “realists” to senior State Department positions. Europeans hope this heralds a more collaborative, less confrontational approach. British Prime Minister Tony Blair claims U.S. policy is “evolving.” But while Rice addressed America’s image problem, it remains unclear how far she can or will go in changing real-time U.S. behavior. International superstar or not, her political position at home is intrinsically weak. Her Washington power base rests solely on her personal relationship and access to Bush.

So far, she has not dared defy her master’s voice.

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