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Home Page > Articles in English > Bush Takes On Europe


The European Press on George W. Bush
Bush Takes On Europe

By Tekla Szymanski

Spiegel cover "Bush's Warriors"The following article was written in June 2001 for World Press Review and focuses on how the European press perceived U.S. President George W. Bush's first visit to Europe.

Today—amid the deepening rift between Europe and the United States, triggered by the new Bush doctrine, the U.S. administration's isolationist foreign policy, and Europe's opposition to the war against Iraq—, what European journalists pondered just before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, still sounds eerily familiar.

In hindsight, this war of words between a newly elected, amateurish president who stumbles over foreign policy issues, and his more experienced European counterparts, seems rather trivial, for we know how the world was about to change three months later. But the issues raised here are to be taken seriously: Because now, "the cowboy in boots," as Bush was then all too easily dismissed by European commentators, is on a war path, determined to fight terror, no matter how. And the Europeans are told to shut up.

But they won't: European Journalists are merely sharpening their pens.
"[...] The U.S. administration is sulking like a child whose toy has been snatched away by the younger brother at the playground," wrote Berlin's left-wing
taz on September 25, 2002, after Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was re-elected on a platform that dared to criticize Bush's call to strike Iraq. "[...] The United States have shown that they are unable to form a partnership that is not solely based on obedience. [...] Now, Bush has to prove to us that he is willing to cooperate."

"Bush is perceived in Europe as the personification of the ugly American," Dietmar Ostermann wrote in Frankfurt's liberal Frankfurter Rundschau in May 2001. This nicely sums up the German press' attitude toward the newly elected president. No other state visit has succeeded in rousing the German-language press from its summertime slumber as did George W. Bush's first trip to Europe. He was derided as an anti-environmentalist and a consummate corporate politician, bent on unilateral American hegemony, reviving the Cold War, and executing criminals by the hundreds. As Bush's trip to Europe in June 2001 progressed, German journalists seemed to be trying to outdo each other in the acidity of their remarks. The way Bush walks, the way he talks, his position, or lack thereof, on controversial issues—all were mercilessly lampooned in the pages of the German press.

Ani-Bush demonstrationBut amidst all the venom and antagonism, one thing wasn't clear: Was the outpouring of resentment a manifestation of a growing anti-Americanism in Europe now that the Cold War is over? Was it directed at Bush's policies? Or had Germany's editors already prejudged Bush as a "cowboy in boots, …not the leader of the free world, but a well-mannered lout" (as Wolfgang Koydl called him on June 9 in Munich's centrist Süddeutsche Zeitung)?

"Europe is different," Koydl continued, "Europe is complicated and Europeans are easily hurt. Washington seemed to have acknowledged that. And now here comes Bush, jumping into this delicate relationship and subsequently falling through it like through rotten undergrowth. …The new president still doesn't know what he wants."

On June 13, Kornelius Stefan amplified Koydl's theme, also in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: "The preconceived image of Bush has been proved correct. …The biggest mistake of the Bush administration in dealing with Europe and the world was that it initially wanted to do everything different, because it thought it knew better. …Bush wanted a small revolution, which was based on a precept no more sophisticated than 'no more Clinton.' …However, the hawk Bush will not 'turn chicken.' …But the lasting impression from Bush's visit is a mutual feeling of getting on each other's nerves. …If this feeling intensifies, we need to admit that the alliance between the United States and Europe exists only on paper."

On June 11, under the headline "A Somewhat Different President," Malter Lehming wrote in Berlin's centrist Tagesspiegel, "The right to make mistakes in the beginning was never granted [to Bush]. People had already formed their perceptions of the Texan. …When someone runs against a wall, he gets a bloody nose. …But [Bush] has learned from his mistakes. …[He] has approached the Europeans cautiously…. So nothing substantial can be expected from Bush's trip…. Bush is neither Kennedy nor Clinton. Europe does not have to worship him. But its disappointment shouldn't turn into contempt."

Moreover, his travel itinerary seemed peculiar to many German commentators: "Why doesn't Bush come to Berlin?" Malte Lehming asked on June 13, also in Tagesspiegel. "He has not visited Berlin, London, Paris, or Rome. He started his journey in Spain because Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the United States, and Bush wants to be re-elected. And Spain is one of the few European countries that have a conservative government. …Anti-American feelings in Europe are virulent. And in the United States, the most Americans feel no more than indifference towards Europeans. No American would ever think of demonstrating against European policy. …As a result, the cultural rift between Europe and the United States is getting bigger, but politically and economically there is no alternative to the transatlantic alliance."

Others seized the notion of a broad cultural gap between Americans and Europeans. "The Europeans are complicated," wrote Günter Lehofer in the June 15 edition of Steiermark, Austria edition of the liberal, Catholic-orientated Kleine Zeitung. "They worry about global warming. Regarding environmental issues, Europe has united all its political divisions—the left, center, right, progressive, and conservative—to adopt a careful treatment of the environment. Even if this undertaking has seemed at times hypocritical, Europe has a different culture than America. And this will count in the future." The next day, Ernst Heinrich, elaborating in the same paper, also took this anthropological view: "Bush is like millions of his compatriots: conservative, friendly, stubborn, informal—and not very educated. Now he has to prove to his fellow Americans that he is a good, a strong president. That is the reason he is so forceful in Europe."

Berlin's centrist Berliner Morgenpost acknowledged the difference between the United States and Europe but did not speak of a crisis. "Bush didn't exactly jump at the opportunity to meet [German] Chancellor [Gerhard] Schröder again," wrote Von Corne Faltin on June 15. "Since Bush's election, the relationship between Berlin and Washington has cooled. The 'rich kid' Bush and the social democrat Schröder don't seem to get along. And Schröder can't get over the fact that his 'friend Bill' is not in charge anymore. …Schröder, a stern advocate of environmental protection, regards Bush's alternative proposition to the Kyoto protocol as an environmental fig leaf. …But to judge the differences between the two men as a threat to good relations is to be unrealistic. The substance of German-American relations has not been affected. …George W. Bush is 'not a Berliner'—but he understands Germany's importance nevertheless."

In Frankfurt's conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (June 12), Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger examined Europe's apparent deep antagonism toward Bush. "Many Europeans view Bush as a self-satisfied, execution-supporting president of a world power so intoxicated with itself that is pays little or nor heed to the concerns and interests of others, but rather sees in itself the measure of all things. [Europeans see the United States as] a power that does not care about international rules, principles and organizations, but behaves as if its sole desire is to achieve the greatest possible advantages for itself and maximize its freedom of action…. [The cement that kept European and Americans together during the Cold War] has been replaced by a friendly and obliging pragmatism administered by elites who are oblivious to the pathos of the past, and who coolly weigh their interests…. The United States should follow the motto that those whose leadership is characterized by cooperation and calculability will not fall under the stereotypical suspicion of arrogance, hegemony and a desire to rule the world."

In a June 15 article for Frankfurt's conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , titled "The Bogeyman," William Pratt—tongue slightly in cheek— characterized "bad-guy Bush" as someone "who has trampled over international efforts to rescue the environment, who endangers world peace with plans for a national missile defense system, and who stands behind the death penalty…." But, in Bush's defense, Pratt also acknowledges that "Bush is simply doing the same thing that the good guy Mr. Clinton did: representing his country's interest in a democratic fashion."

Hamburg's liberal newsmagazine Der Spiegel reacted to Bush's visit with an unmitigated sneer. In a June 13 editorial titled "Estranged Friends," the paper proclaimed that "The United States and Europe have nothing much in common." Five days later, Der Spiegel's editors ran a patently nasty story from Carlos Widman. "Until last week, Europe," Widman wrote, "was for George W. Bush a white spot on the map, which he called 'Yurp.' Even Bush knew that his first trip to this terra incognita wouldn't be a political success…." Despite this, Widman continued, "Bush's black governess, Condoleezza Rice, remains optimistic: 'We know from experience that Europe and America are ideal partners, if we combine our strengths and weaknesses.'"

Others were less vitriolic. Berlin's centrist Berliner Zeitung (June 13) saw Bush's first trip to Europe as a "friendly family trip, where there will neither be major breakthroughs nor disputes." Daniela Weingärtner, writing for the June 14 issue of Berlin's taz, was also more restrained, but could not keep a slightly sardonic tone from her remarks: "The travel agents in the White House mean well with their new president. On his getting-to-know-you trip to the old continent they gave him time to adjust to the new political surroundings. His first stop was Madrid, and it was a home run. A flattered [Prime Minister José María] Aznar enjoyed the unexpected promotion to close confidante of Big Brother."

The Swiss press devoted large space to Bush's visit as well. "The Europeans Really Believe All This Cowboy Stuff," proclaimed the top story in the June 17 edition of Zurich's weekly Sonntags Zeitung. "Bush's advisors" the paper's editors speculated, "do everything they can to diffuse the picture the Europeans have of George W. Bush as a slightly dumb, gun-loving opponent of abortion and stern advocate of the death penalty…. But they have not been very successful: As Bush traveled across Europe, behind him floated the ghost of the last dummy of the White House—Ronald Reagan."

The editors of Zurich's conservative Neue Zürcher Zeitung apparently found all these smirking diatribes a bit hard to take. On June 19, they seemed determined to put the attitudes of Europe's journalists into perspective: "If one reads European newspapers nowadays, one can get the impression that the relationship between Europe and the United States is profoundly damaged and irreparably strained. One would think that Europe stands united against Bush. …The pressure to stand by America has vanished, and a number of European governments use their newfound independence with enthusiastic gusto. …But a creative alliance between Europe and America, as effected by Bush the elder, is a model, which should be adopted by the son as well. …Nevertheless, it has become clear that Europe needs America more than the Americans need Europe. Nevertheless, [Bush] still needs prove to the Europeans that he is made up of more than just baseball, Bible, and barbecue."

Also rising to Bush's defense was Artur K. Vogel, of Zurich's independent weekly Weltwoche. Vogel sees Bush as a perfect scapegoat: "George W. Bush makes for a perfect picture of the enemy, regardless of all the hugs and pompous speeches. …He came just in time, because the EU has bigger problems than it admits. …An enemy from the outside is always useful to overshadow one's own internal frictions. Unfortunately for us Europeans, Bush will have to go back home."

Amidst all the mockery and rancor, Vienna's liberal Der Standard stayed optimistic. "What binds us together is more than what divides us," the paper's editors insisted in a June 15 editorial. And they are likely right. Bush apparently provides too easy a target for witty, sophisticated, German newspaper editors to resist. For a while, the European press will continue to enjoy their little joke. More serious criticisms and recriminations are also likely to continue to fly. But in the end, this storm in a water glass will not permanently damage the alliance between Europe and the United States. Europe needs America—nothing new in that—but soon enough, the Bush administration will also realize that the United States needs Europe enough to take European opinion into account.



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