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Scenes from an Italian Conference

A meeting between Americans and Europeans brings an end to the rift. Sort of.

12:00 AM, Jun 18, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, last week was "Transatlantic Week," in which several conferences devoted to U.S.-European relations occurred simultaneously. The Washington Post's David Ignatius covered one in Berlin where the presence of Richard Perle, aka The Prince of Darkness, probably led some to believe a full-scale war might break out. Instead, Ignatius reported, "Perle conceded that the Bush administration could do a better job of maintaining dialogue with European leaders," and that he was "in a mood to mend some of the broken heirlooms in the Euro-American cupboard, rather than smash more china. . . . Perle seems to understand that Washington still needs friends."

Further south in Cernobbio, Italy, Richard Cohen attended another conference where one of the guests was Undersecretary of State John Bolton. Unlike Berlin, things here did not seem to go so well. Cohen says that Bolton was downright recalcitrant when it came to questions about weapons of mass destruction. "Then, having vindicated every European's caricature of the arrogant American, he left this resort on Lake Como carrying a suitcase in one hand, a briefcase in the other--and a chip on his shoulder so big I feared he would exceed the weight limit for his flight home."

Sure, Americans can behave oddly when it comes to Europe, but what about the Europeans? It turns out they can be just as critical of themselves--and willing to move on, as I learned at another conference in Tremezzo, Italy, also on the shores of Lake Como. Cosponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Bertelsmann Foundation, and the Center for Applied Political Research, the meeting was dubbed "The Transatlantic Trainwreck--Picking up the Pieces," and was attended by 30 men and women from Europe and America, all in their 20s and 30s, representing business, media, and government.

There was definitely some angst with our European counterparts going into the conference. The topics included Iraq, the Roadmap to Peace in the Middle East, and the future of the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO. There was more than enough ammo to go around. But after a few days, only a handful of shots were fired. So what happened?

"There was such enormous expectations that our two sides would have this big fight, but after so many months of fighting, I don't think we had it in us," said Michael Jansen, an adviser to Angela Merkel, the Christian Democratic opposition leader in Germany. "I don't think we want to fight anymore, and it's not enough that we need to work together again. We actually want to be friends again." Isabella Falautano, an associate fellow at the International Affairs Institute in Rome, believes "we were all very conscientious that we needed to restart the dialogue, no matter the differences. That and the fact that we are meeting here in beautiful Lake Como. It makes it very difficult not to find agreement."

She's right. There are few places in the entire world more beautiful than Lago di Como. And aside from the location, the food and drink provided by our sponsors was of Caligulan proportions: On Thursday night, the conferees were taken by boat to Isola Bella and served somewhere between seven and ten courses of pasta, meat, and fish, with a seemingly endless supply of wine. Later the chefs cracked open a giant wheel of parmesan and carved out shards of fresh cheese for each of us. Then there was the pot of flambéed coffee, a narration of the history of the island, and the stumble back to the boat, which took us, by moonlight, to Tremezzo.

Not that we didn't have our differences. A German television journalist strongly criticized Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz for citing reasons besides weapons of mass destruction to justify the Iraq invasion. Ronald Asmus, a former Clinton deputy assistant secretary of State for Europe who's now a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, countered by saying he found it amusing for Europeans to see other reasons for the war and think, "Aha!" as if they were vindicated. There are, says Asmus, many valid reasons for action, not just WMDs. He noted that if you asked different members of the Clinton administration why they thought it was important to go into Kosovo, you'd get different answers, too.