Curtain raised on a new act

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — The whirlwind tour of Europe and the Middle East by Condoleeza Rice, the new U.S. secretary of state, has contributed to a better atmosphere in relations between Europe and America.

She seems to have charmed and impressed not only her ministerial hosts but also hard-bitten journalists. No one was left in any doubt about her intellectual abilities, or her mastery of her briefs. She no doubt conveyed European concerns to U.S. President George W. Bush, who is following her to Europe.

She did not make any significant concessions on U.S. policies, but this could hardly be expected. European leaders, including Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Germany and President Jacques Chirac in France, demonstrated, by the warmth with which they greeted her, their hope for a new start in relations with the United States.

But while a better atmosphere is clearly welcome, there needs to be substantive progress on some difficult issues that divide America and Europe. Concessions will be needed from America as well as from Europe.

Iraq remains a major problem. The Americans and the British are pleased that so many Iraqis came out to vote Jan. 30 despite threats from insurgents, but there is no sign that the Sunni minority is ready to accept rule under the Shiites. Nor will the Kurds be willing to make concessions that reduce their autonomy. The new government that forms may not be to America’s liking, especially if it seems too friendly toward Iran.

The early re-establishment of security in Iraq appears difficult with American troops still in the country, and perhaps impossible without help from other foreign forces.

It has long been argued that real peace in the Middle East can be achieved only after an Arab-Israeli settlement. The recent agreement on a ceasefire between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a clear step forward, but it is not yet clear whether new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas can ensure that attacks on Israelis cease.

An Israeli withdrawal from Gaza should help, but there are tougher problems, including the future of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the future of the security wall, Arab demands concerning Jerusalem and the “right of return” for refugees. Both sides will have to accept painful compromises, and it is not yet clear whether Abbas or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can command sufficient public support to make the necessary concessions.

For the moment, it appears that the Americans may be ready again to use their muscle with both sides to force a compromise, but the religious right in the U.S. and the Israeli lobby will have to be squared before effective pressure can be put on the Israelis.

A solution to the threat posed by the Iran’s aim to develop nuclear weapons has not yet been found. The Americans are apparently ready to allow Britain, France and Germany to continue the diplomatic dialogue with Iran, but are unwilling to enter into diplomatic contacts with Iran themselves. The problem is that only America can give the sort of security guarantee the Iranians want.

On one side, Iran faces Pakistan, and on the other, beyond Iraq, Israel. Both are American allies and both are nuclear powers even if Israel does not publicly admit to being one. Since the war between Iraq and Iran, the Iranians have had some justification in worrying about instability in Iraq and the continued presence there of U.S. forces. Although the Iranian government’s human rights record is bad, so is that of many other states with which America maintains friendly relations.

The Middle East was not the only subject of discussion during Rice’s tour. She explained America’s concerns about the European proposal to end the embargo on arms exports to China, and no doubt stressed U.S. fears about the potential Chinese threat to Taiwan.

The Europeans for their part argued that the embargo is an unnecessary irritant in relations with China and is, in any case, only voluntary. They also stressed that new rules limiting exports of arms and military technology will replace the embargo. But it is unlikely that Rice found such arguments convincing. Symbols do matter, especially when dealing with a one party state like China.

The Europeans also raised with her the problems of global warming and expressed their disappointment at the American refusal to support the Kyoto Protocol. The American argument that carbon dioxide emissions are best dealt with through progress in developing alternative fuel systems and technology has not convinced the Europeans, who see American consumption of hydrocarbons as excessive and damaging to the environment. The Europeans were no doubt told that there was no way the U.S. Congress would support American adherence to the protocol.

Other issues between Europe and America were mentioned only in passing. U.S. criticisms of the United Nations and the U.N. secretary general over the handling of the oil-for-food program in Iraq are generally not supported in Europe. Prime Minister Tony Blair went out of his way recently to show his personal support for the secretary general and for reform of the U.N. structure.

U.S. opposition to the International Criminal Court is a lingering sore point. Europeans deplore the American refusal to endorse the proposal to refer criminal acts in the Darfur region of Sudan to this court and instead to request establishment of a separate court. This is seen as a time-wasting and expensive course.

Rice’s tour was a successful curtain raiser, but there is confusion and smoke behind the curtain.