What can Blair expect from Bush? Just fine words...

To return with even a half-empty plate will confirm his party's belief that he is Bush's poodle
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The Independent Online

To Tony Blair's cry that Europe and the rest of the world must come to terms with a Bush America, there is a simple answer: "why?". France and Germany and of late Spain have managed perfectly well without close relations with Washington and there is no reason to believe that they won't continue to do so from now on. Europe no longer has the same need for a nuclear umbrella. Trade is handled by the WTO and in the G8. Cultural exchange will thrive whatever.

The same could be said the other way round. To those who argue that the US must rebuild its alliances and re-establish close relations with Europe, one could retort with the question: "why?". America can continue to live distanced from the UN and its debates, it need no longer encourage European integration now that the Cold War is over, it can impose its own sanctions on Iran, North Korea or whomsoever it might wish. Lack of allies won't stop it.

It's the basic question that Tony Blair needs to ask himself when he talks with President Bush today in Washington but which he seems not quite to comprehend. In the British Prime Minister's mind Europe has to come to terms with the Washington of Bush because, without America, there is nothing you can do about the great issues of Middle East peace, World Terrorism, climate change, African aid and world growth.

All true in the strict sense of international diplomacy. The US is too big to ignore and too important for the rest of the world to proceed without in institutional initiatives in the G8, IMF, UN or any other international organisation.

But if Washington doesn't want to proceed with such initiatives - and all the indications are that, for the moment, it doesn't - then these organisations will still go on along their chosen paths. Nato can be let drift, the US can turn down the wick of its relations with the EU and continue to stand aside from Kyoto, the International Court of Justice and nuclear weapons test ban treaties. And the world won't end. It's when you want change that America's attitudes matter. It's then that the gap becomes apparent between what the Washington of George Bush and Dick Cheney seek and what many in Europe and a good deal of the rest of the world wish.

And so with Tony Blair's visit to Washington. Why he is in such a hurry to get there is far from clear. It may be that he is anxious to get his oar in first, before Ariel Sharon, John Howard or Vladimir Putin can beat a path to the White House door. If so it's a high risk tactic, given that first come are expected to be first served. To return with even a half-empty plate will be to confirm Blair's own backbenchers and much of the public in their angry belief that he is Bush's poodle, flying there to give a first lick to his master.

The main hope for a Washington "success" is obviously Middle East peace, the issue that Tony Blair has defined as the primary international problem of the day and which Bush has reluctantly agreed is "one of them". It's an issue on which they can agree some form of words, despite Bush's irritation that Blair should be pushing it so hard at this point when his election is barely over, Arafat is inconveniently clinging to life and Ariel Sharon is still in an internal crisis over his plans for withdrawal from Gaza. Blair wants Washington to commit to the peace process. Bush would prefer to play it by ear as events develop.

The US President is already signed up to the idea of a separate Palestinian state and would be happy to use Arafat's death and Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza to lend his weight to Palestinian elections for a new leadership and efforts to make Gaza a success. The crucial point is whether the US, backing Israel, makes further progress towards peace dependent on Gaza proving quiescent and co-operative. Bush would be happy to play it long. Blair would probably prefer a commitment to West Bank negotiations from the start. But when push comes to shove he won't press it. Washington's commitment to Palestinian elections and aid in Gaza will be enough for the Prime Minister to declare that he has gained something important.

The really fascinating question, however, is how much all this really does matter to Tony Blair. There was a time when he hoped to be a world leader, bestriding trans-Atlantic relations and the new world of ethical foreign policy like a colossus. Iraq has put paid to that. He no longer thinks he can win round his opponents, simply reach a wary truce with them. What he believes from recent polling here and the result of the election in the US is that the anti-war vote is ultimately limited in effect. People are more concerned with security at home than rightness abroad.

The lesson of John Kerry's defeat was that progressive parties ought to concentrate their attentions on domestic reforms. Which is where he would like to turn his energies, even at the cost of an open rift with his Chancellor. Of course Tony Blair would like to achieve something in Washington today, but he doesn't expect anything dramatic and, one suspects, won't be too surprised if he doesn't get it.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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