The Bush administration has suddenly discovered diplomacy.
After three years of criticizing President Bush for taking a unilateralist approach to foreign policy -- a charge Bush officials maintained was unfair -- foreign officials attending the Group of Eight summit that concluded Thursday said they noticed a distinct shift in the administration's tone and attitude. Suddenly, officials said, the Americans were more willing to listen, more eager to resolve differences and more interested in finding a pragmatic solution.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, long in the White House doghouse after opposing the war in Iraq, was moved to declare after a meeting with Bush: "There has been a remarkable change in the American foreign policy."
Other officials attending the summit did not go that far. But even French President Jacques Chirac, who clashed with Bush at the summit over NATO's role in Iraq, said he had noticed a difference during the negotiations at the United Nations over the Security Council resolution recognizing the interim Iraqi government. He praised the "great openness of mind that was displayed by the diplomats for the United States."
"I may say the Americans truly understood that they needed to play the game, and they did," Chirac added.
Tensions still were visible, especially over Iraq and Bush's democracy push in the Middle East. But given the battles of the past three years, the mood here appeared less confrontational than when President Bill Clinton hosted the G-8 summit in Denver seven years ago. Then, the U.S. economy was riding high and European and Japanese officials chafed at what they considered Clinton's excessive boosterism for the "American model."
Bush administration officials privately concede that their diplomatic skills at times have been lacking, especially in the period before and after the Iraq war. Now, after a year of grim news in Iraq, the administration is scrambling to build international support for the nascent Iraqi government, which requires that U.S. officials listen to the concerns of other nations.
The administration's shift appears also to have been influenced by other factors. Democratic presidential hopeful John F. Kerry has harshly criticized the administration for imperiling America's alliances, making the case that relations are so frayed that only a new president can hope to begin anew. New polls indicate that Kerry has begun to open up a lead over the president, with Bush's handling of the war with Iraq dragging down his approval rating.
The Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal also has so harmed the U.S. image abroad that the administration has tried to avoid any major spats with allies.
Finally, administration officials were determined to use the summit as a showcase to erase doubts about Bush's handling of foreign policy. So they pressed hard for passage of the U.N. resolution on Iraq before the summit started, to remove that issue from the table. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who rarely travels abroad, flew to Europe to meet with her counterparts to lay the groundwork for the resolution.
Bush's aides especially wanted to show that, notwithstanding doubts about his handling of Iraq, the president could set the agenda on the world stage. So, despite the reluctance of some key Europeans and Arabs, the administration pushed for the adoption of a plan to promote democracy in the Middle East. When the French insisted on a reference high in the document to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration gave ground to win overall approval.
"We accommodated them; they accommodated us," a senior administration official said. "We had a very happy outcome. This is known as diplomacy, an art so forgotten as to be exotic and even radical."
Foreign officials well remember that just a year ago, Bush left the G-8 summit in Evian, France, early, which many took as a sign of disrespect. In interviews at this year's summit, foreign officials said they were not sure if the new attentiveness by the administration marked a strategic shift or merely was a temporary maneuver to get through the summit and past the presidential election. All of the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, preferring to leave on-the-record comments to the leaders.
"It is a vast difference" from a year ago, a senior Japanese official said. "They have managed to forge a spirit of solidarity and cooperation."
One European official said that the turmoil in Iraq has convinced officials on both sides of the Atlantic that they need to get past the disputes. "There is a different atmosphere, a more cooperative attitude," he said. "But I think it stems from the idea that both are dependent on each other."
"We were split before, but not here on Sea Island," another European official said.