WASHINGTON – In a recent conversation on the impact of improved transatlantic relations, a European diplomat singled out the role of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
He then made a prediction: "If we can get a deal on the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Sudan, it would be thanks to her," the diplomat said. Dr. Rice's predecessor, Colin Powell - a favorite of Europe's - had favored such an accord, he added, "but he could not deliver."
Last week the United Nations Security Council voted 11 to 0 - with four abstentions including the United States - to authorize the ICC to prosecute atrocities committed in the conflict-torn Darfur region of Sudan.
That the United States withheld its veto (after settling for a measure that exempts nationals of non-ICC ratifying countries from prosecution) was the latest herald of markedly improved US-Europe relations. Behind the thaw in what just a year ago looked like a new ice age are factors ranging from Europe coming to terms with President Bush's reelection to the president naming a secretary of State who the world knows is his close confidante and thus can get things done.
Moreover, as the Security Council's Darfur vote suggests, the improvements are more than just atmospherics: Recently the European Union signaled it would not be lifting an embargo on arms exports to China anytime soon, as had been widely anticipated though strongly opposed by the US. For its part, the US agreed to support European efforts to use diplomacy in dealing with Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons ambitions.
And if Paul Wolfowitz won unexpectedly easy (and unanimous) approval of the World Bank's board last Thursday to become president of the international institution, it is largely due to a European decision not to oppose Mr. Bush's nomination - even one the Europeans do not necessarily relish.
'Prolong this new tone'
"Each side has come to the conclusion that we can do things together that it couldn't do alone, and each side is taking steps to prolong this new tone," says Simon Serfaty, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The improvement carries the clear imprint of the postwar difficulties in Iraq. The insufficiencies of the "coalition of the willing" that the US cobbled together for the war - and without most of its traditional allies - brought home the reality that "the Europeans were not as weak as we thought they were, and not as irrelevant as we thought they were," Mr. Serfaty says.
At the same time, he adds, the growing optimism for positive changes provided by elections among Palestinians and in Iraq had its impact on the Europeans: "They realized they can't do without American power, primarily because they don't have it themselves."
Yet even though these realizations were taking place on each side, the situation still needed a catalyst - and that was provided by Bush's trip to Europe in February. Never before had a US president traveled so soon after elections to Europe. The trip had an immediate impact.
"We heard time and again that [Bush] was on a listening tour," says the European diplomat. "It's a real change, and most welcome."
Another factor is events. Shows of "people power" in places like Kiev, Ukraine, and Beirut, Lebanon, backed up Bush's call on the Europeans to join the US in redoubling efforts to promote freedom and democracy. The bombing that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri also forged a new cooperative relationship between Bush and French President Jacques Chirac - the world leader who had most adamantly opposed the US on the war in Iraq.
Perhaps the most significant "event," however, was the death of Yasser Arafat: The Europeans complained throughout Bush's first term that the US was not engaged enough in the single most important conflict in terms of the possibilities for change in the Middle East. Bush refused to play much of a role as long as Mr. Arafat was in charge on the Palestinian side.
Possible clouds on the horizon
The result of Iraq, fortuitous events, and the realizations that the two sides of the Atlantic have undergone is that relations are back on track and having a clear impact. But the improvement doesn't mean issues aren't out there that could turn things sour again, experts say.
Chief among the looming trouble spots is Iran. The deal that the US and the Europeans struck is that tougher measures - starting with the possibility of economic sanctions from the Security Council - will follow any failure of diplomacy.
"Iran is like a slow-moving Cuban missile crisis," says Serfaty of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Europeans are doing the best they can to defuse it, he says, but over the next 18 months it is going to build to a sharp test of the new cooperation. A European failure will cause the US to rattle its sword, he predicts - and putting "any military option on the table will cause the Europeans to panic."
Other factors that could darken the Atlantic's blue skies include events like a major terrorist attack - which experts say could also bring out the sheathed US sword and cause new reactions in Europe to the exercise of US power.
But another test will come simply from other global powers - including Russia, India, and China - testing the Western alliance.
"They can do things that will cause friction in relations," Serfaty says. He cites as as an example China's growing cooperation with Europe in scientific areas, where the US is sitting on the sidelines, and he observes, "The Chinese are already doing it."