It is a novel feature of the Bush administration that the President's intellectual weakness has provided an opening for the first really powerful Vice-President in living memory. The neo-con web that ties up policy has at its centre Dick Cheney, who hand-picked every one of them. The foreign adventures of the administration are launched from the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis. When Paul O'Neill was fired as Treasury Secretary, it was not the President but Dick Cheney who rang to tell him to pack his briefcase. Managing Congress is a task wholly devolved to Dick Cheney - though he may have moved from asset to liability with his recent flash of temper on the Senate floor when asked for more detail on the Iraqi deal with Halliburton, of which he had been chief executive.
All this makes John Kerry's choice of running-mate more significant. The US media is already writing of the forthcoming TV debates between Dick Cheney and John Edwards with more excited anticipation than the Bush-Kerry set-pieces. John Kerry and John Edwards may be both male, white and Washington politicians, but there is a balance of a kind to the ticket. John Kerry has the gravitas and John Edwards has the pizzazz. John Kerry has nursed the centrist, swing voters with great care. John Edwards will fire up the Democrat core vote with his Disraeli-style depiction of two American nations, one privileged and the other powerless.
They are a combination which may just work. The mood-swing among Democrats is certainly positive. I spent much of this week in the Netherlands with Madeleine Albright and other long-standing Democrats. When I visited them in the US last summer, it was rather like being dropped behind enemy lines to bring messages of encouragement to a demoralised resistance. Now, only a year later, there is a real sense that discussing relations with a Democrat administration is no longer a theoretical question, but sensible planning.
The Bush administration will leave transatlantic relations badly in need of repair. Iraq provoked a crisis in Nato which one of its staff compared to a "near-death experience". US officials are given to complaining that at the Istanbul summit they tried to build bridges by offering joint initiatives and brandishing UN mandates, but were rebuffed. The truth is that the conversion of George Bush to multilateralism is just too close to the presidential elections to be convincing.
A Kerry-Edwards victory is a necessary condition of restoring the transatlantic partnership, but we should not delude ourselves that it will be a sufficient condition. Europe needs to recognise that the orientation of the US will increasingly turn to the Pacific rather than the Atlantic.
In short, if Europe wants the transatlantic relationship to remain important to the US, we need to work at it. Here we face a conundrum in the British debate. Those who badge themselves Atlanticists, especially in the Conservative Party, like to prove their commitment to the US by demonstrating their lack of commitment to the EU. But Washington has no interest in a fractured Europe of fractious nations each competing for a pat of approval from the superpower. Its defense analysts lament that all large European nations struggle to maintain a full military spectrum of air, sea and land capability instead of specialising in complementary roles. Its foreign policy strategists are impatient of the incoherence of European external policy.
The place to lay the foundations for new, more equal transatlantic relations is in our own continent, by offering the US a stronger partner it could not resist and a more united Europe it cannot divide. Yes, it will be difficult to weld the diverse foreign interests of so many different nations into one common strategy. Chris Patten has memorably described the challenge of uniting member states behind a common foreign policy as like trying to herd cats. However, we have learnt to achieve unity on trade policy, and have seen the extra leverage we gain for all member states in trade negotiations.
Member states could start by taking the trouble to observe agreed common strategies in their national conduct of foreign relations. For instance, there is little sense in European foreign ministers signing up to a joint statement condemning the rigging of elections in Iran and then sending their ambassadors to dignify the formal opening of the undemocratic, unrepresentative parliament. This neither convinces the Iranians that our condemnation was sincere, nor impresses the Americans that Europe will ever be robust towards Iran.
Meanwhile, US Democrats should give some thought to how they can surf the wave of relief and goodwill that will be released by a victory for the Kerry-Edwards ticket - or to be more precise by defeat for the Cheney-Bush ticket. Fortunately the sheer excess of the Bush years make it easy for an incoming administration to signal a serious change of direction at little immediate cost.
It would be great if a Kerry administration picked up where Bill Clinton left office in negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol, but if the new President were only to accept the scientific consensus on global warming, that would represent a major advance on George Bush, who is still in denial about the threat. Similarly, opposition in Congress may make it impossible for any president to ratify the International Criminal Court, but it would be within Kerry's power to end the active sabotage by the Bush administration of the efforts of others to get the court up and running. It would be welcome if a Kerry White House expanded US development aid, but dropping the Bush ban on any projects that support family planning would gain enormous goodwill and demonstrate a retreat from the attempts to impose Southern moral values on the globe, and yet would cost no more dollars.
No country needs a fresh start with a new tenant in the White House more than Britain, which is paying a high price around the world for its close identification with the policies of George Bush. Yet Tony Blair does not speak in the tone nor show the body language of a man who understands this evident truth. A US columnist claimed last week that every British cabinet minister but one wanted George Bush defeated. The exception was the Prime Minister.
If true, this is perverse. The re-election of Bush would make it more challenging to win back the votes of all those who opposed the war in Iraq and who worry that the next time Cheney and Rumsfeld find another country to liberate, Tony Blair will again answer the call. However, the defeat of Bush - or as the Democrat bumper stickers put it, the re-defeat of Bush - would enable them to vote for a Blair government without voting for a Bush foreign policy.
The selection of John Edwards as running-mate may have brought us another step nearer regime change in Washington. If so, developments this week in the Democratic Party may yet prove to be more effective in enabling Tony Blair to draw a line under Iraq than anything that comes out next week in the Butler report.Reuse content