W.'s European Vacation

W.'s European Vacation

W.'s European Vacation

What the foreign papers are saying.
June 14 2001 9:00 PM

W.'s European Vacation

President George W. Bush's first overseas trip has an unconventional itinerary: Madrid; a NATO summit in Brussels; Gothenburg, Sweden, for an EU-U.S. summit; Warsaw; and Ljubljana, Slovenia, where Bush will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The failure to visit the "big three" European countries—Great Britain, France, and Germany—led to some seriously sour grapes from the spurned countries' papers. According to Britain's Guardian, the German press was "highly indignant": The popular tabloid Bild suggested that Bush was "giving his best allies a wide berth" because he "wants to demonstrate superiority." Der Tagesspiegel of Berlin wondered if "the thoughtlessness of an inexperienced president toward his most important and faithful allies" was to blame. In France, the left-leaning Libération condescendingly compared Bush's trip to the "grand tour" of the early 20th century, in which "children of the bourgeoisie" would "sharpen their wits through exposure to the peculiarities of the Old Continent." Looking on the bright side, Britain's Daily Telegraph said steering clear of the "obvious" choices "will help Mr Bush to reach over the heads of the European elites to the populaces of the individual European nation states."

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A Guardian editorial claimed the big three had only themselves to blame; the president simply wanted to avoid the "discordant noises emanating from the dominant centre-left over provocative, unilateralist Bush policies ranging from defence to the environment and trade." The paper said Europe's right to challenge Bush administration policy was compromised by national and intra-national rivalries: "[D]omestic politics, the EU's disunity, and its lack of democracy and self-belief, should not prevent Europeans from telling Mr Bush, with one voice, what he badly needs to hear: that much of his policy is deeply, crassly irresponsible—and he should go away and think again."

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

An op-ed in the pro-Bush Times of London found the president's itinerary, which features three sets of kings and queens in three days and no "ordinary citizens," "unfortunate." It fretted that "he appears set to spend more time with minor royalty than with President Putin, who has a two-hour slot on the last day. … It would be easy for Mr Bush to waltz through a pageant of royalty and then dismiss European concerns as irrelevant, to leave at the weekend concluding that there was no real role for him to play. That would be the first serious mistake of his presidency." The Moscow Times defense columnist agreed that the brevity of the Ljubljana meeting "guarantees that nothing of substance can happen." The United States isn't offering enough to convince Russia to compromise on the 1972 ABM Treaty, which must be set aside before the missile shield can be developed.

Things that are important here are, say, the head of one's personal enemy on a platter, a multimillion-dollar direct bribe or a lucrative multibillion-dollar contract signed with a powerful lobbyist. That's what they call an "incentive to reach a compromise" in Moscow. As long as the United States is offering Russia various academic "incentives" to compromise on missile defense—things like participation in joint exercises, military or economic aid that cannot be snatched up by insiders and the like—they will be seen in the Kremlin as trying get something for nothing and will be greeted with nothing but sneers.

Like Madonna, the president began his tour in Spain. There were many theories about why Spain received that honor, including: the center-right politics of Prime Minister José María Aznar's government; the Bush administration's interest in Latin America, in which the United States and Spain are the top investors; and the importance of the U.S. naval station in Rota, "the gateway to the Mediterranean." Papers across the spectrum from ABC on the right to El País on the center-left agreed that the visit was a diplomatic triumph for Spain, but it was by no means a love fest: Although Prime Minister Aznar was generally supportive of missile defense, Spain and the United States are at odds over the Cuban embargo and the Helms-Burton Act, the anti-paramilitary aspects of the Plan Colombia, global warming and the Kyoto accords, and most of all, the death penalty.

The timing of Bush's arrival in Europe the day after Timothy McVeigh's execution meant that capital punishment was high on everyone's agenda. In France, Le Monde dismissed Bush's statement, "We have our laws; you have yours." "This is the kind of argument used by Chinese leaders when they are taken to task over human rights violations … but it does not work for the United States … which claims to be a world leader." It concluded that the United States' support for the death penalty provides Europe "with moral and judicial superiority over American power."

The reviews of Bush's performance at the NATO summit in Brussels Wednesday were mixed. El País said George Bush's declaration that European allies were softening to the missile-defense project was "more of an example of the president's 'charm offensive' than a statement of fact." Le Temps of Switzerland's assessment: "It wasn't delirious enthusiasm. Nor was it open hostility."

As he often did during the 2000 U.S. election campaign, Bush launched into his rather idiosyncratic Spanish upon arrival in Madrid, but whereas American journalists didn't make a big deal of his second-language shortcomings (his English kept them pretty busy), the Europeans couldn't resist. El Mundo of Madrid made passing mention of Bush's iffy grammar, but the British piled on. The Times reported, "The language he learnt from the Hispanics of Texas is a far cry from the language of Cervantes. In an interview on Spanish television, he twisted the grammar, mixed up genders and accentuated the wrong vowels." A Daily Telegraph's editorial defended Bush, applauding him for trying: "Most people with English as their first language rarely venture beyond the odd query regarding the whereabouts of the railway station or a self-congratulatory remark about the weather. President Bush is more robust."