U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched a transatlantic bridge-building exercise Tuesday night, urging Europe and America to set aside their differences over the Iraq war and work together to spread democracy around the world. In what was billed as the keynote speech of her first official trip to Europe, Rice told an audience of 550 students and diplomats in Paris that it was "time to turn away from the disagreements of the past ... to open a new chapter in our relationship, and a new chapter in our alliance."
The Unites States and Europe should try to move beyond "a partnership based on common threats" and focus instead on "common opportunities, beyond the transatlantic community," she said at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, the elite politics college better known as Sciences-Po.
Rice's choice of France for the formal unveiling of Washington's effort to mend badly damaged fences was deliberate: Paris was by far the most outspoken opponent of George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war, and popular anti-American feeling here still runs high.
Tuesday, in a 45-minute speech aimed at convincing Europeans of a more conciliatory mood in Washington, Rice said the two continents should put their experience and resources on the table and "discuss and decide together" the best way forward. But she was uncompromising in demanding European backing for Bush's pledge, in his State of the Union speech last week, to spread freedom around the world. "America stands ready to work with Europe on our common agenda, and Europe must stand ready to work with America," she said. "After all, history will surely judge us not by our old disagreements, but by our new achievements."
Washington's charm offensive has been broadly welcomed by European diplomats, particularly since the Iraq elections on Jan. 30. At a joint press conference with Rice later Tuesday night, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier spoke of "a new phase, a clean sheet" in European-U.S. ties, adding that both partners must aim "to speak and listen more to each other, and respect each other's convictions."
Several French commentators have said they see clear signals that the Bush administration, for long happy to ignore the views of all who did not agree with it, is now determined to place improved transatlantic relations at the heart of the president's second term.
Rice, telling reporters it was time to "reinvigorate" the French-U.S. relationship, noted that France had been America's first ever ally and that "when we do work together, there is a great deal we can achieve."
On Iraq, Rice said Islam and democracy were not mutually exclusive, and that while the political process would be difficult, she was confident that the Shiite majority that is expected to emerge understood "their responsibility not to do to their fellow Iraqis what was done to them by those who had them live in tyranny and fear."
She added: "I think they will come to a conclusion that will surprise us all in how well they do it." Rice had brief talks with President Jacques Chirac Tuesday night, and dined with Barnier at the Foreign Ministry headquarters on the Quai d'Orsay.
In a further sign of apparently thawing relations, Bush is due to meet Chirac in Brussels on Feb. 21.
Security arrangements at Sciences-Po, on Paris' Left Bank, were unprecedented, said the institute's director, Richard Descoings. An entire wing of the building had been sealed off since Saturday. The venue of the speech was announced publicly only on Monday. Only 100 places were available for students and teachers at the college, with the remainder reserved by the U.S. Embassy.
Those who heard Rice speak, however, were largely skeptical. "There's still a lot of anti-American feeling in France," Anne-Laure, a student, said afterward. "I'm not sure any one person can overcome the instinctive reaction here to Bush."
Rice insisted that the United States had "everything to gain" from a stronger, more united Europe as a "partner in building a safer and better world." Transatlantic ties, she noted, were unbreakable. "We respect each other," she said.