By Richard S. Dunham When Air Force One embarks from Andrews Air Force base on June 11 en route to Madrid, most Americans won't even realize that their President is taking the first overseas trip of his Administration. Indeed, George W. Bush's five-day, five-nation whirlwind through Europe is perhaps the least-hyped Presidential trip in recent history. No major policy addresses on the American place in the world. No Bush stem-winder on U.S.-European relations. Not even a weighty briefing from the Secretary of State or Defense. Just a few brief Rose Garden remarks on global warming before departure.
It isn't hard to figure out what's going on here. The White House is trying to lower expectations. And for good reason. As Bush has shown repeatedly during his short but successful political career, he's a master at exceeding the low expectations that constantly face him.
But there's another practical reason to downplay the trip, which includes meetings with NATO and European Union allies, as well as the first face-to-face encounter between Bush and another self-styled international tough guy, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prospects for any kind of major diplomatic accomplishment are very small, and lots of things could go wrong for the new President in Europe. So the Administration figures it's best not to even hint at a breakthrough on complex issues such as global warming or the future of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
What does Bush need to do to call his trip a success? Here are some things to look for:
Can he get America's European allies to cut out the carping? Oh, those Americans. Traditional U.S. friends in Europe have been complaining about Bush Administration policies since the day he was elected. Imagine how the Europeans -- who culturally loathe capital punishment -- feel about Bush's willingness to mete out the death penalty as governor of Texas. But that's just the beginning. Among the areas of conflict: Bush's summary rejection of the Kyoto accords on global warming, the Administration's planned antimissile defense system, White House tough talk about steel imports, and threats of U.S. troop withdrawal from the Balkans.
The Euros will be quick to lecture the President. But the Bush Administration wants to leave Europe with a different theme in the headlines. "We have more in common than we have in disagreement," says National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "We really should be celebrating that which we have in common." It'll be a small step in the right direction if Britain's Tony Blair, Germany's Gerhard Schr?der, and Putin all mouth those words in the next few days.
Teamwork is in -- "Lonesome Hawk" is out. Bush has been pilloried in the European press, not only for a perceived lack of intellectual gifts but for failing to consult with Europe's leaders before making final decisions on international-policy issues. Both Bill Clinton and the senior George Bush used their close personal relationships with European leaders to help build consensus on thorny issues. The younger Bush hasn't yet done any bonding with his counterparts across the Pond.
The Euros will be watching to see if the President promises to take the views of America's allies into consideration before he formulates final policy proposals on issues of vital concern to Europe. Talk of "consultation" is cheap. Real teamwork -- like his father exhibited prior to the Gulf War a decade ago -- is the key.
Play up Poland. The President's day trip to Warsaw is a public-relations dream. Poland is a post-Cold War economic success story of at least modest proportions. Plus, the visit will provide an opportunity to commemorate the Warsaw ghetto uprising of the capital's doomed Jewish population -- and to honor the sacrifices of Polish patriots who fought both fascism and communism in the past half-century. Bush has an opportunity to say something memorable and historic in a speech at a Warsaw university. Will he ace the test?
Hey, there, Vladi Baby! The trip's biggest challenge is the two-hour session with Russia's Putin, scheduled for the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. Former President Clinton's personal rapport with ex-Russian President Boris Yeltsin helped the two nations get through some rough patches in the '90s. It's vital for Bush to build a relationship of respect -- if not of warmth or affection -- with the former spymaster who's now running Europe's largest nation. Keep an eye on the body language when the two young leaders hold a joint appearance before the cameras.
So, enjoy the sights, from Spain to Slovenia, Mr. President! You have your work cut out for you -- whatever the expectations may be. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online