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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.

Another German journalist thought the problem might have to do with different sets of cultural values on issues like the death penalty. Asmus pointed out that "if Harry Truman asked me about these deep differences between Europe and America and my answer was the death penalty and genetically modified organisms, he would laugh and say we were crazy and ask about the real issues of war and peace." Mark Brzezinski, a former director at the National Security Council, explained to the Europeans the difference in threat perceptions after September 11, which had Americans "feeling more unsafe than at any other time in recent memory while Europeans in the post-Cold War are feeling more secure than ever."

And not all Europeans shared the same mind. Jan Ross, a writer for Die Zeit, took some by surprise when he recalled the events of 1989. "What were the two most important lessons of that year? First, that freedom matters. Second, that change can be better than stability." He asked everyone to think about this when discussing Iraq. Cem Ozdemir, another fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the first member of the Bundestag of Turkish descent, was critical of how some of his fellow Germans were thinking. He pointed out that some of his countrymen scoffed at the idea of German peacekeepers serving under Polish command and believed the widespread notion that the Middle East cannot be democratized because Arabs are not yet enlightened.

Even some of the stronger critics of America, like Thomas Gutschker, the foreign editor of Rheinischer Merkur, conceded that while they disagree with the Bush administration, they don't consider the president to be ignorant (anymore). "After reading Woodward's book, it is clear that Bush is not dumb. He is just not an ideologue--he listens to both sides and then comes to a decision."

(Gutschker has really had it, however, with E.U. farm subsidies. "The European Union spends almost half its budget on farm policy. It would be great if the United States applied even more pressure on us and ridiculed our current policy.")

Michael Jansen of the Christian Democrats added that "even though we might not agree with your government, we would not have turned it into a personal thing or called the action immoral, which is what Schröder did. It went too far."

Everyone noted how soft-spoken the two French attendees were, neither of whom really defended Chirac. More outspoken were non-E.U. representatives, like Romana Vlahutin of the Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who chastised both sides of the Atlantic, claiming that the pressure on her country to take a position was like "forcing a child to pick who she loves more, mommy or daddy. We were beginning to like neither."

While discussions were spirited at times, they never turned caustic--that is, except for one incident, in which Isabella Falautano scolded the heathens for having the temerity to mix meat and pasta on the same plate. "You just do not do that in Italy," she stated. One American retorted, "That's not true. What about spaghetti and meatballs?"

Judging by Isabella's deadening stare, we found it best to back down, enjoy the ravioli alone, and turn our attentions to less controversial matters, like foreign affairs.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.