Friday, February 25, 2005

In Reagan's Footsteps

The Wall Street Journal, Review & Outlook:
Visits by U.S. Presidents to Europe tend to have a template-making quality: Wilson, the peace maker, in Paris, 1919; Truman, the victor, at Potsdam, 1945; Kennedy, the stalwart, in Berlin, 1963; Reagan, the visionary, in Berlin, 1987. If President Bush's trip this week has some kind of new theme, the word for it is probably conciliation. But our sense is that Mr. Bush is really following in Reagan's footsteps.

Admittedly, this thought is not original: Der Spiegel beat us to it. Still, it says something that the leftish German newsweekly, which two years ago devoted an entire cover story to advancing the "Blood-for-Oil" thesis about U.S. ambitions in the Middle East, has gingerly raised the question, "Could Bush Be Right?"

"The Germany Reagan was traveling in, much like today's Germany, was very skeptical of the American president and his foreign policy," Der Spiegel writes. "When Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate -- and the Berlin Wall -- and demanded that Gorbachev 'tear down this Wall,' he was lampooned the next day on the editorial pages. He is a dreamer, wrote commentators. ... But history has shown that it wasn't Reagan who was the dreamer as he voiced his demand. Rather, it was German politicians who were lacking in imagination -- a group who in 1987 couldn't imagine that there might be an alternative to a divided Germany."

It is doubtful that Der Spiegel would have made these observations had Mr. Bush's visit taken place just before Iraq's election rather than just after. And we suspect most of the magazine's editors would dearly have preferred to see a President Kerry.

But events have a way of imposing both discipline and clarity. For much of Europe, the idea that President Bush is the real and legitimate face of America came a few years late. But it has come, as has the realization that a hopeful era is dawning in the Middle East thanks to U.S. "unilateralism" and force of arms. In this sense, the purpose of Mr. Bush's trip isn't to present himself anew to Europe. It is to allow European leaders -- France's Jacques Chirac, Germany's Gerhard Schröder and Russia's Vladimir Putin -- to present themselves anew to Mr. Bush.

Partly this reflects political facts: Contrary to expectation a year ago (and with the qualified exception of Spain), the leaders who supported the war in Iraq have all been returned to office, while Messrs. Chirac, Putin and Schröder languish in polls. ..

Probably the most important component is that President Bush's vision of spreading democracy -- of getting to the "tipping point" where tyrannies start to crumble -- seems not only to be working but also winning some unexpected converts. Just ask the Lebanese who are suddenly restive under Syrian occupation. As a result, European politicians are in a poorer position to lecture this President about the true ways of the world.

This isn't to say that Mr. Bush can or should be indifferent to the attitudes of his European counterparts. They have agreed to put differences about Iraq behind them, which is good. The U.S., France and Germany also seem to be reasonably united in their concern about Russia's imperial pretensions and attenuated civil liberties. But potentially larger differences loom before them, above all over the nuclearization of Iran and the lifting of the post-Tiananmen arms embargo to China. ...

Still, there are reasons to be sanguine about the future of trans-Atlantic relations. We are in no doubt that most European hearts thrilled to the sight of Iraqi voters going to the polls last month, suggesting that, whatever Europe and America's political or ideological differences, we remain alike in our innermost values and aspirations. Nor do we believe our world views are so divided that persuasion and compromise are impossible. Pundits may differ as to whether Mr. Bush and his European counterparts planted the seeds for a better relationship. What's sure is that they were planting on fertile soil.