As Crescent goes to press, US president George W. Bush is on day 6 of his much-vaunted European tour, designed both to consolidate support for the US’s ‘war against terrorism’ and to demonstrate that the US is not acting unilaterally or alone. The results have been decidedly mixed. A major set-piece of the tour was the signing of a treaty between the US and Russia to cut nuclear warheads by two thirds, which was clearly intended to be headline news, as it would have been a few years ago. Now the only headlines it made in most of Europe pointed out how little significance the treaty had. Time was when the world had two superpowers facing off against each other and shaping their policies by the need to manoeuvre around each other with minimum offence and disruption to the stability of the international order. Now there is one superpower, with no balancing counterweight, and almost the only consideration that Washington policy-makers have to worry about is news presentation and their president’s and country’s public image.
In the US that is not a major problem. The image of the presidential tour that the Washington scriptwriters decided to portray is being faithfully projected by the main American media, and the vast majority of Americans have no reason to question the image of the US leading a western world happily accepting its leadership and faithfully following their leader in defence of freedom, democracy and civilization in the world. In Europe, by contrast, and in other parts of the world, a more discordant picture is emerging, and the reality of Bush’s tour is very different. While the "leader of the free world" is being welcomed courteously by the European leaders whom he would like to think of as his loyal lieutenants, there is little warmth and considerable condescension in their attitude to him.
In Berlin, his first port of call, Bush’s speech to the Bundestag — the German parliament — was interrupted by members protesting against his international policies and unfurling a banner reading "Mr Bush, Mr Schroeder, stop your wars". Bush appeared nonplussed, and there was what one reporter described as a "pleading tone" in his voice as he set out the threats the West is facing and the justifications for war: "The authors of terror are seeking nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Regimes that sponsor terror are developing these weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Wishful thinking might bring comfort, but not security. Call this a strategic challenge; call it, as I do, an axis of evil; call it by any name you choose, but let us speak the truth."
His words, routinely greeted with patriotic fervour in the US, received only polite applause in the heart of one of the US’s closest allies; little wonder that he left Berlin and moved to Russia where he probably expected a warmer welcome. At the official level he undoubtedly got it, but on a visit to president Vladimir Putin’s old university in St Petersburg it was rather an different story. Here he agreed to take part in a question-and-answer session with students, posing as an academic and intellectual, a role he enjoys. The session was highlighted in the international media; what few reported was the titters and giggles that greeted his promise to give the students "the most sophisticated seminar in international relations" they had ever had. Bush’s own ignorance of the world and of international affairs is well known.
The reality that Bush and most other Americans seem incapable of appreciating is that few Westerners outside the US are as ignorant of international affairs as most Americans are. The comic-book version of the world that the US establishment feeds the American masses, and which few informed Americans dare to challenge, is treated as a joke by most Europeans; the main effect of Bush’s tour so far has been to confirm that he and most of those around him actually believe it. The tragedy is that, even as they snigger discreetly at Bush’s gaucheness, the European leaders are perfectly willing to play along with the farce because they know that ultimately the hegemonic power that the US wields is good not only for the US but for other western countries too, provided that they do not antagonise the biggest bully on the block.
It is this common self-interest that characterises the unity of the West, not any concern for common values, freedom, democracy, human rights and civilization.