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Fred Hiatt

A Few Words Between Friends

By Fred Hiatt
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page A17

MUNICH -- To measure the gap that President Bush will be trying to bridge on his goodwill tour of Europe next week, you could start by counting words.

In his inaugural address Bush used the word "freedom" 27 times. Twenty-one more "freedoms" graced his State of the Union speech.

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On Saturday German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's speech was the opening event of the Munich Conference on Security Policy, an annual gathering of U.S. and European defense and foreign policy bigwigs. Schroeder (whose speech was read by his defense minister when the chancellor fell ill) touched on many of the same subjects that Bush did: Middle East peace, terrorism, 21st-century threats and 21st-century defenses.

Here's how many times Schroeder used the word "freedom": zero. By contrast he cited "stability" or "instability" or "stabilization" or "stabilizing" eight times.

Today's officially sanctioned theme of U.S.-European relations is repair and restoration. European leaders are said to understand that they might as well make the best of American voters' incomprehensible (to them) rejection of John F. Kerry. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice charmed the European press; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, also in Munich Saturday, gamely mocked the "old Rumsfeld" who had mocked "old Europe." The new Bush is scheduled to eat not one but two official meals in Brussels, the epicenter of Euro-pride: one with NATO, another with the European Union.

But how real is the warming? Politeness between allies is better than rudeness, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) led a congressional delegation to the Munich conference, said that Rice and Bush are right to be reaching out after their scratchy first term. But after meeting with a series of German officials, McCain also said: "They haven't budged one inch that I could see. Not on Iran, not on Iraq, not on arms sales to China. . . . I didn't see one iota of willingness to help us in Iraq."

Publicly, Germans dispute that picture, citing debt relief they've agreed to and a small number of Iraqis they've trained outside Iraq. Privately, they and other "old Europeans" say it's not realistic to expect a charm offensive of one or two weeks to undo years of insult. And they, too, ask where's the beef; they want to know whether Euro-friendly Bush will consult more or whether he'll dine in Brussels and then go back to his old ways.

But the word count is a clue that a lot more separates Bush from old Europe than their pique at his arrogance. Where Bush champions democracy, the Europeans want development. Where he cites universal values, they preach cross-cultural understanding. Where he demands change, they urge caution.

So, on Iraq, they would prefer brokered power-sharing to ballot-box unpredictability. On Iran, they chide Bush for expressing solidarity with advocates of democracy, arguing that his rhetoric will only make the mullahs nervous and less willing to deal away their nuclear weapons program. To Schroeder, Russian President Vladimir Putin's authoritarianism is irrelevant: Russia has made "considerable progress" and in any event "security on our continent cannot be achieved without, and certainly not against, Russia."

There is much talk about facing the "root causes" of terrorism. This used to be code for criticizing Bush's bellicosity. Now that Bush is dwelling on root causes, too, the Europeans argue that he's picked the wrong one: tyranny, instead of poverty.

Indeed, German President Horst Koehler, while saying "freedom from want" should be the primary Western goal, argued that too much freedom can actually spark terrorism: "Youths in the slums of Karachi, Cairo, Lagos or Jakarta are constantly confronted with what initially seems a fascinating lifestyle, the epitome of freedom. But in many respects this lifestyle is quite incompatible with their own cultural norms and values. The result is a potent mix of fascination, frustration and rejection, which in many cases may generate hatred and violence." Like Schroeder, Koehler does not factor tyranny into the mix.

The sensitivity toward cultural differences allows Europeans to indulge their prejudices against naive Americans, with their insistence on democracy for everyone; the emphasis on development over democracy plays to perceptions of the United States as selfish, since America channels a smaller percentage of its wealth to foreign aid.

But by neglecting other people's aspirations for liberty, the Europeans often end up sounding more cynical than sophisticated. It doesn't mean that Germany and the United States can't cooperate, as they do now with great success in Afghanistan. But with the unifying Cold War over, McCain said, he was hearing a return to the "century-old clash between Wilsonian principles and European realpolitik." Even two meals in Brussels won't meld those visions.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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