By Stan Crock If you followed the coverage of President Bush's recent trip to Europe, I'll bet you came away with the idea that there are still big differences between the European allies and the new President on global warming and missile defense. Truth is, these rifts were largely overstated by all the press coverage. And besides, these aren't the really significant issues, anyway.
Here are the facts: The Europeans, like the U.S., haven't ratified the Kyoto Global Warming Protocol. Like the U.S., they know they won't be able to meet its call for reductions to 1990 emission levels, and in private discussions, they freely acknowledge it. It's true even with Germany, which has a huge advantage: The 1990 baseline includes East Germany's filthy plants, which now are closed.
And both Europe and the U.S. concede the scientific basis for the global-warming problem. The uncertainty, in Washington's view, is in determining the impact of various remedies aimed at slowing global warming. So the gap across the Atlantic isn't so great -- as long as Washington doesn't use uncertainty as an excuse for doing nothing. And that's unlikely to happen. Bush and his advisers know that they're politically vulnerable right now on environment issues, especially with swing voters in the suburbs.
SAME THREAT. Take a look at missile defense. It's rarely noted in all the coverage that NATO is already moving ahead with a theater missile defense system. That's the equivalent of a national defense system for the Europeans, who realize their countries are all potential battle theaters. The Euros acknowledge the same threat the U.S. sees. It's a question of which defense system would work best. Europe is suggesting by its actions, though not its rhetoric, that defensive systems may make sense.
The bottom line: The Europeans may be huffy over these politically charged issues, but they're also displaying a lot of hypocrisy. Besides, there are other, larger issues we all should be mulling. It's now a decade since the end of the Cold War, and NATO has been around for five decades. Historically, grand alliances such as the Triple Alliance of Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, and the Triple Entente, which included France, Britain, and Russia, disintegrated after 20th century wars were fought. How much staying power does NATO have? What is its purpose now that the Soviet Union -- Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" -- is gone? Will a separate European security and defense entity rip the alliance apart? And would that be good or bad, or is it just inevitable?
These questions are especially relevant as NATO considers further expansion. The West is grappling with how to handle both a rising power -- China -- and a declining one -- Russia. Such seismic shifts in the geo-political terrain can have enormous consequences. Two world wars were fought after nations failed to respond quickly and effectively to such shifts last century.
HEALTHY SIGN. After Bush's trip, it seems the U.S. is handling relations with Russia, the declining power, with more grace and aplomb than it is China, the rising one. Though Bush sent the blood pressure of conservatives soaring when he said he saw Russian President Vladimir Putin's "soul" and declared him "trustworthy," Bush's reiteration that Russia is not an enemy, along with his willingness to work with Moscow, were healthy signs for U.S.-Russian relations.
Moscow, of course, opposes further NATO expansion to the Baltics, which Bush has backed. Russia opposed the first round of expansion, too, but seems to be getting on well with some of the new NATO members, such as Poland. So what Putin says now has far less relevance to the U.S. and Europe than scoping out what Russia's role in the world will be two or three decades from now, when the transition from communism is old history and Russia is on a new, hopefully more stable, economic and social path. The victors in World War I humiliated Germany, the loser, and regretted it two decades later, when Berlin sought revenge. We shouldn't repeat that mistake with Russia.
GOOD, BAD, OR INEVITABLE?. There are other questions that don't fit neatly into positives or negatives. If NATO's chief mission now is to restore order when places like the Balkans erupt, will NATO expansion make that task easier or harder, as more nations debate and deploy such "peace-keeping" operations? Will expansion be another nail in the coffin of the idea of nation states in Europe and elsewhere? Global capital flows, and the willingness of some countries to cross borders to stop internal abuses already have substantially undermined traditional notions of European sovereignty. Again, is this good, bad, or simply inevitable?
The answers aren't easy to figure out. But these are the kinds of questions we should be pondering, not whether Bush really knows that Africa is a continent and not a country, or whether he really looked into Putin's soul. The issues in Europe for the U.S. couldn't be more profound. But the treatment they received couldn't have been shallower. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views twice a month, only on BW Online