Silvio Berlusconi’s re-election as Italy’s Prime Minister is more promising and more important for Italy and the United States, and for trans-Atlantic relations generally, than most commentators have admitted. Although the Bush Administration has just nine months left in office, significant progress is both possible and desirable in enhancing ties between America and Europe.
President Bush’s critics have been quick to assign him blame for weakened trans-Atlantic relations, particularly because of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They argue that public opinion polls show European popular sentiments turning against the United States. They gloat that two of Bush’s staunchest personal and political allies -- Prime Ministers Tony Blair in Britain and Jose Maria Aznar in Spain -- have left office, in large part because of dissatisfaction with their support for the Iraq war.
But look today at Europe’s political leadership: Nicolas Sarkozy in France has replaced the bitterly anti-American Jacques Chirac. In Germany, Angela Merkel has replaced the dyspeptic and anti-Iraq war Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Britain now once again speaks about the US-UK “special relationship.” And now, Berlusconi will soon return to the Chigi Palace. How times change.
Europe’s new political configuration has already partially manifested itself in NATO’s decision in Bucharest to support deployment of U.S. missile defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic. Even the Bucharest Summit, however, reveals continuing problems, such as Europe’s reluctance to start Ukraine and Georgia on the path toward ultimate NATO membership. Pressed by Russia not to open up to these former Soviet republics, Europe bent its collective knee to Moscow. And in Afghanistan, NATO forces are divided between those daily facing difficult combat situations, and those like Italy’s and Germany’s posted in less dangerous parts of that embattled country.
America’s European critics repeatedly disparage its supposed unilateralism, contending that the United States should modify its policies to create a multilateral front against threats such as Iran’s nuclear weapons program. From the U.S. perspective, however, the problem is not American unilateralism, but Europe’s unwillingness to do much of anything to stand up to external threats, whether from Iran or from a newly resurgent Russia. That is why the NATO missile defense decision is so positive, representing as it does a clear, alliance-wide recognition of the Iranian threat. That is also why the decision on Ukraine and Georgia is so negative, reflecting a European unwillingness to resist Russia’s new leverage.