By SEBASTIAN MALLABY
The Bush charm offensive in Europe has limits, and so in fact it should. The Europeans are wrong to want to sell weapons to China, wrong not to come forward with more help for Iraq's transition and wrong (this goes especially for France) to resist tougher action on Sudan's genocide in Darfur. We don't want a president who makes nice with Europe on these issues. We want a president who can sway European attitudes.
But there's a second basket of subjects where the opposite point holds: where the administration gratuitously alienates Europe out of ideological inflexibility or shortsighted indifference. Unless it backs the Europeans on the things that they are right about, the United States can forget European support on its priority issues.
Consider climate change, for example. The Europeans care passionately about this issue, and they happen to be correct. The globe really is warming; human activity really is behind this; even the Bush administration concedes as much. So why won't the Bushies respond to European calls for action?
The current fight over the International Criminal Court and Darfur fits into the same mold. The United States has always said that international tribunals are fine if they are politically accountable, meaning that the United Nations Security Council should have to authorize prosecution. Well, Europe now wants the Security Council to authorize prosecution of war crimes committed in Darfur. But the Bushies say no.
Then there's the bust-up about foreign aid and Africa. Tony Blair, the British prime minister, wants to use his country's chairmanship of the Group of Seven to roll out big new promises on debt relief and development assistance this year. He and his finance minister are so eager for this that they compete against each other for the pro-Africa limelight; it's their way of wooing an electorate that's gone sour on the Iraq war. So what's the Bush reaction? Again, a blunt "no."
It's worth considering this aid fight, because it shows the subtle difference between an administration that understands diplomacy and one that founders. The Bush people argue, with some reason, that the British proposals are awkward; for example, an idea to commit rich governments to future aid payments would be hard to jam through the congressional appropriations pro-cess. The Bush folk add that they've warned the British repeatedly of their objections and that the schism that emerged publicly two weeks ago reflects Britain's obdurate refusal to listen. "We said no at dinner, we said no on the car ride home, we said no on the front porch, and he still said come to bed," according to the helpful metaphor of one administration official.
But successful diplomacy is about more than saying no. If the administration can't agree to a British proposal, it ought to come up with an alternative that makes sense to its ally, and be sure to share the credit for it, too. It should show more energy and more imagination. It should pitch development ideas that can fly on both sides of the Atlantic, transforming a petty fight over aid financing mechanisms into a united front on the issue.
The Bush administration, for example, should embrace an idea to spur vaccine development for poor countries that's popular inside the British government. The notion is that rich countries would sign a contract promising to purchase vaccines for AIDS or malaria if they are invented; that would provide an incentive for pharmaceutical giants to put research dollars to work. This approach protects intellectual property, leverages the resources of the mainly U.S.-based private sector, minimizes government meddling and costs nothing unless a vaccine is actually developed. In sum, it fits the Bush worldview perfectly. So why not applaud the Brits for their excellent leadership and get behind the idea?
The Bush administration should also celebrate a plan for accelerated school enrollment that's dear not only to the British but also to the Canadians and the Dutch. The idea is that rich countries promise to finance convincing proposals to enlarge primary school enrollment, giving poor countries an incentive to come up with robust programs. Again, the concept fits the Bush administration: Money rewards good policy, and the education focus should appeal to the self-styled education president. Moreover, U.S. allies have already set up an administrative apparatus for vetting proposals, and 12 countries are due to receive a modest $348 million in 2005. All this idea needs is a fresh injection of money from the United States, which would leverage donations from other governments. It's good diplomacy and good policy. So where is Team Bush?
Nurturing the European alliance requires more than presidential trips to Europe. It takes the creativity and determination to get beyond "no."
X Mallaby is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff