An unpopular export

PRESIDENT BUSH’S TRIP TO EUROPE is being welcomed like an infectious disease. Bush was unpopular in Europe from day one of his presidency, but a charm offensive launched last year — and a more conciliatory approach toward European concerns — was meant to change that, or at least nudge the approval rating up a notch. Instead, recent polls show he is more unpopular than ever across the Atlantic.

Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that Europeans now claim the United States is a greater threat to global stability than Iran, according to a Harris poll. Given that a key goal of Bush’s visit is to persuade European leaders to support his efforts to stem Iran’s nuclear ambitions, that’s a bit of a problem. Though Bush wants to talk about Iran, energy and Europe’s failure to live up to its commitments to help pay for Iraq’s reconstruction, European leaders will feel obliged to take the president to task over Guantanamo Bay and alleged secret CIA prisons.

European disdain for the United States is nothing new, of course, and the feeling has long seemed a bit contrived. The French grumble about the U.S., but they love McDonald’s and Hollywood. Austria, host to the meeting between the U.S. and European leaders, is one of the most fiercely anti-Bush nations in Europe. It prides itself on its neutrality, which is another way of saying it prefers to let the U.S. pay the financial and human costs of policing the world while its intelligentsia get to rail about American excesses in the war on terror. Nonetheless, Bush’s disdain for multilateral institutions, environmental protection and international law has earned him a special place in the pantheon of unpopular U.S. political exports.

It is hard for Bush to alter his image at this point in his presidency, but he must do as much as he can to court European public opinion, lest governments on the Continent find it untenable to be associated with any Bush initiative. Bush’s recent interview on German television, in which he said he would like to end internments at Guantanamo Bay, was a good start. He could build on it by acknowledging legitimate European concerns over climate change and repudiating the “rendition” of terror suspects.

Maybe the best PR move would be to make a surprise trip to a World Cup game in Germany. With the U.S. seen abroad as an insular nation that doesn’t play well with others, a presidential visit to the hugely popular event — indeed, a humble recognition by the former baseball team owner that the World Cup is the biggest sports event on Earth — would carry enormous symbolic value. For security reasons, it would have to be unannounced and last-minute. But if Bush can drop into Baghdad unannounced, as he did last week, surely he can make a visit to Nuremberg.