Are transatlantic relations on the mend? The mood music surrounding George W. Bush's early June trip to France -- the leader of last year's diplomatic moves to counter U.S. and British war plans against Iraq -- promises to sound downright friendly. There will be a June 5 dinner with Jacques and Bernadette Chirac at the
Elysée Palace in Paris, followed by what will no doubt be a heartfelt commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-Day the next day at the vast American war cemetery near Omaha Beach.
It will all be a reminder of the common values of democracy, the rule of law, and individual rights that bind the two sides of the Atlantic. When it comes to the Bush visit, says François Heisbourg, an adviser to the Defense Ministry and director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, "we are going to be on our best behavior."
There are ample reasons on both sides why no one is going to spoil this party -- for now. The Bush Administration badly needs the help of allies such as France and Germany to give international legitimacy to the June 30 handover of power to the newly named Iraqi government of President-designate Ghazi al-Awar and Prime Minister-designate Ayad Alawi. On the French side, Chirac has toned down his calls for a "multipolar" world and a European Union strategic planning capability independent of NATO. He and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sense there is no further political gain in alienating Washington, especially at such a sensitive time in the Middle East. "Do not do anything that will make it harder for Bush and for America in Iraq -- those are the marching orders now in Europe," says Julian Lindley-French of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. "Their failure in Iraq is our failure."
With just six months until the U.S. Presidential elections, European leaders are also hedging their bets. John Kerry is by far the favored candidate for Europeans, a politician "who doesn't see countries with whom America has a relationship as either vassals or enemies," as one French official privately puts it. But Bush may yet be reelected. If so, the hope in Paris, Berlin, and other capitals is that he will be forced to jettison some of his more hard-line officials in a second Administration.
Yet there are limits to how far Europeans are willing to go to support the Bush Administration in Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is still facing unrelenting criticism over the war, including from Labour backbenchers. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition government -- an early, unconditional supporter of Bush -- is facing mounting pressure to reduce Italy's military contingent in Iraq. And any hopes of French or German troops helping to police Iraq have been dashed. "French soldiers won't be going, either now or later," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said in mid-May.
Even if Europeans give rhetorical support to U.S. efforts in Iraq, other issues threaten to set transatlantic relations on edge again. Little common ground, for example, has been found on a joint U.S.-European initiative to bring democracy to the Mideast. And trade issues are on the boil as the U.S. considers launching a World Trade Organization complaint over alleged European government subsidies of Airbus. The talk in Normandy will be of reconciliation, but the transatlantic relationship may well remain tense.
By John Rossant in Paris
Edited by Rose Brady