Halfway through a Gerhard Schroeder speech that was being scrutinized down to its last umlaut by a hall full of American diplomats, politicians and scribes, I scrawled a note to myself: Oblivious, stubborn or clairvoyant?
By the end, it was clear: The German chancellor was being incredibly clumsy. Clumsy like a fox.
President Bush may want to keep the fox metaphor in mind on his journey to Europe this week. It would caution him against hoping for an immediate grand bargain with Schroeder, Jacques Chirac, the Belgians and others who have challenged America's global leadership in Iraq and elsewhere.
Expect little on that front, Mr. President. They are not ready. And neither are you. Raising hopes on both sides of the Atlantic that Europe and America can quickly forge a new consensus on global strategy will quickly lead to renewed disappointment. Keep rhetoric and expectations under control.
Concentrate instead on closing the chapter of discord ignited by the Iraq war, a worthy goal in itself. And recognize the deepening cultural and social divergences across the Atlantic that cannot be bridged by a quick fix of political harmony organized to mollify public opinion. This requires arduous, painstaking work.
Don't misunderstand. The presidential meals with European Union and NATO leaders, and Condoleezza Rice's adroit advance work this month, are necessary steps to reestablish diplomacy as an effective instrument of U.S. foreign policy. But they will not be sufficient to close a widening gap.
The dangers of expectations were illustrated by the unrequited hopes that U.S. officials invested in Schroeder's speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy last weekend. The chancellor was expected to reciprocate for Rice's outreach to Europe, which included carefully measured praise for a united European foreign policy.
Instead, Schroeder pointed relentlessly to a transatlantic glass that is half full and evaporating. His biggest clanger was a dead-on-arrival call for a "high-level" review panel that would diminish U.S. leadership in NATO -- which Schroeder said was in any event no longer "the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies."
Schroeder disappointed Americans who hoped to see light between the German and French positions on the need to organize the world into multiple power blocs.
A spontaneous negative U.S. reaction -- led by Sen. John McCain, who blistered German officials in private over their continuing failure to offer real help on Iraq -- triggered a spirited spinning effort to explain what the chancellor meant to say. "Clumsy" was a word Schroeder's aides did not dispute.
But his clumsiness went in one direction only: Facing a crucial regional election that will be past when he meets Bush, Schroeder took some shots at NATO that met his domestic political needs of the moment. Also, like any canny leader, Schroeder may have been preserving until Bush's visit whatever symbolic gifts he has for the Americans.
Official U.S. thinking still underestimates how thoroughly foreign policy has become the leading instrument of domestic politics in a number of European countries that no longer face the threat of a Soviet invasion. Large Muslim minorities in their midst also complicate European calculations on Atlanticism. If Schroeder and Chirac join on "multipolarity," it is because they face the same domestic imperatives.
For Bush, the point should be not to deplore or gloss over those facts of life. It is better to recognize the limitations they impose on any return to the solidarity of the past. The same is true of the most important unspoken theme I picked up at Munich's annual gathering of security experts.
One European official recently began to articulate it by noting in passing that "the European Union is a peace process in itself." Formed to keep France and Germany from going to war again, the 25-member union has become a bloc of populations who believe fundamentally that war can never again serve any useful purpose.
This is the final achievement of George Kennan's containment doctrine: to convince Europeans that the downfall of Soviet imperialism was always inevitable and flowed from Helsinki 1975, not Berlin 1948. (Both were needed.)
In a private meeting in Berlin on Feb. 4, Schroeder urged Rice to rethink the administration's refusal to engage Iran. He noted that the Helsinki security conference had granted the Soviet Union legitimacy but eventually undermined that regime, according to a person present.
"Different people draw different lessons from their experiences," Rice replied. Stitch those words on a needlepoint pillow for Bush to take with him to a Europe that draws lessons from the past four years that are very different from his.