WASHINGTON — President Bush faces the toughest diplomatic challenge of his presidency this week in Europe, where America's allies are increasingly wary of the new administration's determination to plow ahead with its own agenda--ignoring or denying growing differences with its most important partners in security, trade and diplomacy.
The 15 predominantly center-left governments in the European Union have expressed varying degrees of alarm over the Bush administration's conservative goals. Differences have been highlighted over the last five months when, to Europe's dismay, the White House rejected a groundbreaking treaty on global warming and abandoned the premise of strategic defense dating back half a century to push a missile defense system criticized as costly and unproven.
Bush's foreign policy team denies a divergence and claims that the president's first trip overseas--a six-day swing through Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Poland and Slovenia that will begin Tuesday--will further cement long-standing friendships.
"These are friendly, respectful, outgoing relationships, and he's going to have a chance to renew them. The notion somehow that we have tremendous tensions with our European allies, I think, is frankly just not right," National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told reporters at a briefing on the trip. "We have more in common than we have in disagreement."
The president spent several hours with Rice on Saturday morning at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, going over statements he will deliver during his trip, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.
But even the British, long the closest U.S. allies in Europe, see things differently than Rice does.
"Almost ever since George Bush squeaked into the presidency last November, Europe has felt uneasy about him," the Economist editorialized Friday. Britain's leading newsmagazine said Bush so far seems to favor Asia and Latin America over Europe. It also said he has been unresponsive to "serious disagreements" with Europe on other issues, ranging from Iraq and a ban on nuclear tests to the death penalty--a dispute that is likely to resonate dramatically with the scheduled execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, just hours before the president's departure.
"America's oldest and firmest alliance now looks in trouble," the Economist concluded.
Europe's skepticism has been deepened by Bush's lack of worldliness, according to European envoys. His European travel has been limited to brief social stops in France and Italy. And many of his key foreign policy appointments are people who have not given high priority to Europe, according to Moises Naim, editor of the quarterly magazine Foreign Policy.
No issue better underscores the depth of differences across the Atlantic than the disagreement over the landmark 1997 Kyoto protocol reached in Japan on climate change.
"We see no alternatives to the Kyoto protocol. It took us 10 years to conclude this agreement. We can't just start from scratch," said Jan Eliasson, Sweden's ambassador to the United States. Sweden will host the U.S.-EU summit in Goteborg this week, when pro-environment demonstrators are planning mass anti-Bush protests.
Many Europeans believe that scientific data indicate it's too late to try to find some alternative to the Kyoto formula.
"We can negotiate on the climate, but we can't negotiate with the climate," Eliasson said pointedly.
In Goteborg, Bush will outline three principles central to his administration's thinking as a new Cabinet-level working group explores an alternative to the Kyoto accord, Rice told reporters last week.
The president wants to ensure that developing countries are accounted for in some way, because India and China are not subject to the same binding "greenhouse gas" emission standards as developed nations under the Kyoto protocol. He also wants the latest technology and science to be "important" parts of the solution. And the United States will not agree to anything that damages the American economy "because growth is important," Rice said.
"This is a president who takes extremely seriously what we do know about climate change, which is essentially that there is warming taking place, but he takes it seriously enough to also want to understand better what we don't know," Rice added.
Global warming is also one of the 21st century issues that reflect what Europeans call their "three circles" of disagreement with the Bush administration--on specific issues, general values and transatlantic relations.
"Among Europeans, there is a feeling of malaise in the transatlantic relationship. The Europeans have been really shocked by the way the Bush administration simply put this important treaty in the garbage after years and years of work together," said a ranking European diplomat in Washington who asked to remain anonymous.