Rice’s EU Charm Offensive

Timothy Garton Ash's latest book, "Free World: America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West," was recently published by Random House. He is a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

We are told that Condoleezza Rice received her unusual first name because her parents liked the Italian musical term con dolcezza, which means, “with sweetness.” But what might “con doleezza” mean? A gifted Italian translator e-mails me that “it doesn’t immediately suggest sweetness to an Italian ear.”

Yet there’s no doubt that the new secretary of State has conducted an impressive charm offensive during her lightning tour of Europe. She has presented a more elegant face, spoken a more nuanced language and played a sweeter mood music than most Europeans have come to associate with the Bush administration over the last four years. The grand strategy she unfolds, both in public and in private, also has breathtakingly ambitious substance. At the very least, it deserves to be studied carefully.

What’s more, she’s been lucky. Her conciliatory speech in Paris earlier this week coincided with the handshake of peace between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. That was a gift only in small measure of Washington’s own making. The president whom Rice serves so faithfully, George W. Bush, has long been inspired by the example of Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, he wants his first term, in which he was demonized as a warmonger by many Europeans, to be followed by a second term in which he writes himself into the history books as peacemaker and freedom-spreader.


But Reagan could do this because the United States’ main geopolitical challenger produced a leader called Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Until recently, it was hard to see where Bush’s Gorbachev moment would come from. Now there is just a chance that Bush’s Gorbachev will be called Abbas.

I know, I know. This is different in a whole clutch of ways. And the optimist’s new beginning is the pessimist’s false dawn. But let’s start with the good news: There’s a development in American policy and a moment of opportunity in the Middle East. The two are linked.

The heart of Rice’s argument goes something like this: The greatest strategic challenge of our time lies in the wider Middle East. It’s from there that the terrorists who struck the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, emerged, and it’s there that Islamist extremism is still being spawned. Poverty may contribute to the problem and should be tackled, not least in the Palestinian territories, but Osama bin Laden was hardly poor. The root causes are political. Freedom from want matters; more important by far is the want of freedom.

In shock after 9/11, the Bush administration began with a military and police response. It was going to kick butt, even if it sometimes kicked the wrong butt. Now it recognizes that addressing the underlying causes of terrorism requires more and longer-term deployment of economic, political and cultural means. “Even more important than military and indeed economic power,” Rice said in Paris on Tuesday, “is the power of ideas.”

So the emphasis has shifted from a short-term war on terrorism to a longer-term war on tyranny. The post-9/11 analogy was with World War II; the second-term analogy is with the Cold War. Rice, whose earlier life as an academic was focused on the Cold War, often makes comparisons with the formative years of the late 1940s. In other words, we are talking about a long-term strategy to foster peaceful change in the undemocratic societies of the wider Middle East over the next couple of decades, comparable to the evolution encouraged in Soviet-ruled Europe by a mixture of containment and detente. An evolution that eventually threw up a Gorbachev.

This approach represents a significant development not just in American policy but also in Rice’s own thinking. Four years ago, she entered the White House as national security advisor on an intellectual ticket of “realism,” emphasizing military power and the hard-nosed pursuit of national interests. But her recent admixture of idealism seems plausible not just because of what she says but because of who she is -- an African American woman whose slave ancestors were treated, as she often recalls, even by the founding fathers of American democracy as mere property, each a fraction of a man. Proclaiming this vastly ambitious program of fostering democracy around the world, from Belarus and Myanmar to Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe, she said in Paris that “in my own experience, a black woman named Rosa Parks was just tired one day of being told to sit in the back of a bus, so she refused to move. And she touched off a revolution of freedom across the American South.” Not a line George W. Bush could credibly deliver.

But here, the good news ends and the problems begin. “President Bush,” Rice said in Paris, “will continue our conversation when he arrives in Europe on Feb. 21.” But can he convince Europeans that this really is conversation, not dictation?

Another problem for Bush is that Gorbachev was the undisputed leader of a post-totalitarian state. Abbas is, by contrast, the contested leader of a nonexistent state. Representatives of two militant Palestinian groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have said that they are not bound by his cease-fire. Reagan was Gorbachev’s chief interlocutor; the deals were made directly between the two of them. For all the United States’ influence in the region, Abbas’ chief interlocutor is Sharon, and the deal has to be done between them. And if the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation stalls, transatlantic differences could again become acute.

Bush’s Iran policy is another point of potential conflict with Europe. It is unclear how the U.S. will accomplish its goals there. And there’s a big transatlantic row brewing over the EU’s proposal to lift its embargo on arms exports to China.

So if I were a gambling man, I would not bet on this transatlantic honeymoon lasting long. While I have been writing this column, my Italian translator has e-mailed me again: “If anything, the name could suggest condoglianze, that is, condolence [in occasion of a death]....” The death of the West, perhaps?

With that prospect concentrating our minds, we Europeans should seize this fragile moment of opportunity to put on the table our own proposals for how best to achieve our common goals. We need to do this soon, concretely and con brio.