The Magazine

The Axis of Rudeness

Europe's diplomats wax undiplomatic about Bush's speech.

Feb 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 23 • By PETER D. FEAVER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The second question they ask is, Why are we sure appeasement won't work? Carrot-and-stick appeasement, despite its sorry association with World War II, is not always wrong. Britain's appeasement of the United States at the close of the 19th century was brilliant and forestalled the collapse of their empire for several generations until, well, they tried appeasement once too often, this time in Munich. The Europeans are very keen to keep trying appeasement in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, although, of course, they call it by its politically correct name, "engagement." The Bush administration needs to explain why appeasement is bound to fail in each of these instances--an easy case to make with Iraq, but one that requires more explication with regard to North Korea and Iran.

Finally, they say: We have heard the speech. Now where is the policy? Ramping up the rhetoric without accompanying, visible changes of policy is problematic. Until President Bush's rhetoric is backed up with deeds--deeds the Europeans ironically claim to dread--the Europeans will likely remain quite critical of the speech.

At the same time, the European outburst reminds us that the Bush administration needs to work harder to shore up transatlantic relations. The Bush team risks making the same mistake that bedeviled the administration during its first few months: treating Europe as an adult, whereas Europe in its collective political identity is best thought of (privately) as an adolescent. Europe is incapable of participating as a peer of the United States in diplomatic initiatives or political-military affairs; it is a cacophony of voices and conflicting emotions, and when these contradictions are exposed, the cacophony will surge in typically adolescent fury.

The trick in dealing with adolescents is to accord them the public respect owed adults but privately to hedge, and never to put them in a position where their basic irresponsibility will hurt them or you. Above all, you learn to live without the respect you deserve and with temporizing accommodations.

The next few months will reveal whether the Bush team can master this delicate diplomatic balancing act. If the past few weeks are any guide, they will have to accomplish it without much help from their undiplomatic partners across the pond.

Peter D. Feaver, associate professor of political science at Duke University and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, is a visiting fellow at Corpus Christi College and visiting scholar at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge.