Published on Saturday, June 9, 2001 in the Guardian of London
George W. Bush's America
Bush Flies Into a Firestorm
President's team fears showdown in Europe this week over global warming and defense
by Julian Borger in Washington and Ian Black in Brussels
The White House is scrambling to prevent President Bush's first official visit to Europe becoming a debacle, at a time when profound differences over the environment and defense have combined to produce the prickliest US-European relationship for a generation.
George Bush is due to fly on Tuesday to Spain, where he will be met with protests by trade unions, environmentalists and human rights activists, and then on to Brussels to defend his missile defense scheme in front of 18 Nato allies deeply skeptical over plans to develop what they see as a dangerous "son of star wars".
But Mr Bush's most challenging test of statesmanship to date, will come on Thursday when he flies to Gothenburg in Sweden, where an EU summit will be virtually united in its criticism of his unilateral abandonment of the Kyoto treaty on global warming.
"The worst nightmare is having him go in there and have 15 heads of government shouting at him," said one administration official. "That would be your regular foreign policy disaster."
In fact, there will be at least two sympathetic faces around the table: Silvio Berlusconi, whose new Italian government shares Mr Bush's skepticism about global warming, and Tony Blair, who disagrees profoundly with Mr Bush on the environment but who is determined that the meeting be a success for Britain's transatlantic mediation.
Nevertheless, the dominant mood will be hostile and suspicious. Even Mr Bush's first meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in Slovenia next weekend, poses less of a challenge.
"There is a rare level of toxicity," Dan Plesch, an analyst at the British American Security Information Council. "These are the most severe transatlantic disagreements since Suez."
In Washington, a cabinet-level task-force has been given the job of crafting interim policy guidelines for controlling emissions of greenhouse gases which, according to the current plan, are due to be laid out by the president in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday.
The White House is increasingly aware that the administration's brusque rejection of Kyoto, a 1997 international accord to curb the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - coupled with Mr Bush's withdrawal of a campaign pledge to cut carbon dioxide emissions - has been a public relations disaster both at home and abroad.
Three senior cabinet meetings have been held in recent weeks in an attempt to develop a US alternative to the Kyoto treaty and its country-by-country targets for emissions reduction.
It is usual in the Bush White House for Dick Cheney, the vice-president, to prevail in such policy debates. He favors voluntary controls, but his position has been hindered by the publication of a report by the National Academy of Sciences, which overwhelmingly endorsed Europe's concerns over global warming and its human causes. As a result, state department officials have told European diplomats in Washington that "that battle isn't over".
If the internal debate is not resolved, President Bush is expected to paper over the divide. According to diplomats briefed by the administration, he will acknowledge the reality of global warming. He may caution that some scientific questions remain, but agree that concerted action is urgent without specifying whether it should be compulsory or not.
"In that case, it would represent a real step forward," said one European diplomat. The Americans, British and Italians are hoping that these incremental and symbolic concessions will be enough to prevent a showdown in Gothenburg, and provide hope for further convergence at the next round of global warming negotiations in Bonn in July.
By comparison, the NATO summit in Brussels is likely to be a predictable affair. Lord Robertson, the NATO secretary general, wants to keep the missile defense debate low-key, clinging to the US promise to consult allies and hoping that US domestic politics will mean the development of the anti-ballistic system will take longer than previously estimated.
But the Europeans are alarmed over yesterday's news that the White House is examining a fast-track missile defense option which would have the first interceptor missiles deployed by 2004.
The Bush administration is also taking an increasingly tolerant view of European plans to forge a rapid reaction force, which is seen in Washington as the price of lightening the US security burden in Europe.
But officials on both sides of the Atlantic also point out that away from the headline-grabbing discord over Kyoto and missile defense, productive transatlantic policy-making is under way.
Specific problems such as new row about steel quotas are unlikely to come up, and the emphasis in Gothenburg will be placed on a common interest in preparing for a new global round of tariff reductions.
"People are fed up with the most important relationship that Europe has being portrayed in the media as nothing but a series of irritations," a diplomat said. "It's not a fair reflection of a relationship that is very close and of values that are widely shared. There's a tendency to focus on the issues that divide us."
However, the nagging problem for the optimists is that the points of agreement are practical and short-term. The areas of deep discord, global warming and the future of strategic defense, are both long-term and fundamental.
Global warming EU still committed to Kyoto protocol. All 15 member states reject Bush's preference for voluntary emissions control
US missile defense program No united EU position but grave concerns about the plan
EU defense Bush will reprimand Europeans for moving too slowly to boost defense spending
The Balkans Will agree to stay together in maintaining peacekeeping presence
Middle East The EU and US are formulating a joint position
EU-US trade Romano Prodi will review prospects for a new round of trade negotiations after the failure at Seattle in 1999. Specific disputes to be avoided