LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — It was the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana that hosted President George W. Bush during his first tour of Europe in June 2001, as the site of the U.S.-Russia meeting. How fitting, then, that seven years later it should again host Bush during his final presidential trip to Europe, this time as the setting for yesterday’s EU-U.S. Summit, thereby serving as a sort of frame for the Bush administration’s transatlantic policies.
Bush’s 2001 tour, beginning with the riot-marred Gothenberg summit and culminating in the Ljubljana conference (where the U.S. president famously was “able to get a sense of [Putin’s] soul”) was a tendentious affair, marked by squabbling over missile defense and the Kyoto Protocol. The 2008 summit featured similar issues on the table (plus ca change), but the relatively cordial nature of the meetings at Brdo Castle speaks volumes about America’s relationship with its European allies. Additionally, for the Slovene hosts, this event naturally represented a moment of considerable importance.
The EU-U.S. summit was the climax of diminutive Slovenia’s six-month period in the limelight, by dint of its holding the rotating EU presidency for the first half of 2008. Preparations were thorough, but not without the occasional hitch. Partisan disputes between the center-right national government and the left-wing Ljubljana city government held up the release of funds for much-needed urban renovations, and so a city that was supposed to be sparkling for the arrival of European and American diplomats and reporters instead has the appearance of a construction site.
And while most Slovenes revel in their temporary role at the heart of Europe and transatlantic relations, it should be noted that much of the local media has behaved all too predictably. The odious magazine Mladina chose to have its cover this week depict President Bush in cross-hairs, with the disgusting caption “Ali bi bil svet lepsi brez tega moza?” (“Would the world be better off without this man?”) The daily newspaper Delo featured the tired editorial bromides of Sasa Vidmajer, who complained of Bush’s “breaking international law” (“krsi mednarodno pravo”), and wrote of the years of the Marshall Plan, “when America was different” (“ko je bila America jugacna”) — presumably Ms. Vidmajer means more generous — a bewildering statement hardly worth dwelling upon.
SUCH SENTIMENTS ASIDE, this occasion represented a chance to highlight Slovenia’s post-independence “return to Europe” and ideally forestall the “Yugo-nostalgia” that has unfortunately begun to crop up in some circles. The sites connected with the summit are redolent with allusions to the country’s Europeanness. Brdo Castle, where the key meetings took place, is usually described as a residence of Tito’s, but to most Slovenes it is equally notable as the estate of the Zois family, which produced many of the nation’s greatest Enlightenment figures, most prominently Baron Ziga Zois. The “Ladies’ Program” meanwhile provided for visits to various cultural venues and lieux de memoires, like the National Gallery of Art, whose current exhibition of Slovenian impressionism (something of a phenomenon in this country) draws a connection between Slovenia’s cultural revival after the earthquake of 1895 and the nationalistic renaissance after the geopolitical earthquake of Yugoslavia’s collapse.
These events show that the idea of a Slovene “return to Europe” remains crucial for a country that wishes to escape its Balkan past. Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel once wrote that “‘the Balkans’ is, to be sure, a geographic concept, but even more so the mark of a corrupt and primitive society. With our attainment of independence we ought to rid ourselves of the Balkans in this sense, too.” The EU presidency and the EU-U.S. summit is the culmination of this effort, a validation in the development of this young democracy, and thereby providing an example for other likeminded nations seeking to join the EU and the wider Euro-Atlantic world.
American readers, while acknowledging the value of a post-communist country escaping its past and joining the community of European democracies, are understandably likely to be more interested in the substance of the EU-U.S. summit rather than the symbolic value it has for its hosts. While these summits are typically damp squibs, offering little in the way of concrete developments, they are nevertheless useful indicators of the state of transatlantic relations.
The 2008 EU-U.S. Summit Declaration itself is mostly boilerplate, but there are important developments entailed therein. We are told that the “U.S. remains committed to expand its Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) to all EU Member States as soon as possible, including bringing additional EU Member States into the VWP this year” — welcome news for staunch East-Central European allies like Poland. The Declaration takes a relatively hard line with respect to Iran and its banking interests abroad (asset freezes are now on the table, according to European External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner), but language on other key areas of concern, from Russia to Zimbabwe, is occasionally praiseworthy but more often than not unremarkable.
WHAT IS CERTAINLY noteworthy, however, is that President Bush finds himself, as the London Times‘ Tim Reid put it, very much “among friends.” Leaders in “Old Europe,” like Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Silvio Berlusconi, are firmly Atlanticist. Center-right governments have taken the reins throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic region, here in Slovenia, even in unlikely locales like Scandinavia and Belgium.
Examples of transatlantic cooperation, compromise, and convergence of interests are myriad. Poland’s stance has helped make missile defense a reality, while the issue of climate change (something of a non-starter given Europe’s inability to live up to its own Kyoto obligations) has taken a back seat, as the 2008 summit merely produced a “short and meaningful text on climate change” that “preserves the most important objectives of the EU and at the same time takes into account the US positions.” In the economic sphere, the Transatlantic Economic Council now serves as a valuable forum for the resolution of EU-U.S. trade disputes. Geopolitically, improvements in the situation in Iraq and considerable successes against the Taliban have improved the overall political climate, while Iran’s bellicose rhetoric has served at least to strengthen somewhat Western resolve to act in a unified manner in confronting the increasing danger. Recent statements by the government of Pakistan about the need for Western societies to curtail freedom of speech lest they risk further terrorist violence only underscore the fact that whatever differences may arise between the U.S. and its European allies, there is a great deal more that we have in common.
At the end of a presidency often maligned for having alienated our allies, one finds transatlantic relations in the best state of Bush’s entire term in office, evidence of which is to be found in the cordial, utterly uncontroversial Ljubljana summit. Furthermore, in embodying the culmination of Slovenia’s successful transition to an integrated, liberal democracy, the otherwise formulaic EU-U.S. meetings of June 10 provide a political lesson of broader significance for the countries of Europe’s neighborhood and indeed the developing world.
In any event, though much of what has transpired between President Bush’s two visits to Ljubljana strained transatlantic relations, and though many of the issues sharply debated in the first European tour remain unresolved at the time of the second, there is much cause to be optimistic about the future of the Atlantic alliance. Whether credit will be given where it is due is another matter entirely.