Old Europeans, beware. American diplomacy may look ill-informed and clumsy to those of us living in what used to be known as Western Europe. But in the countries of so-called "new Europe", Washington's blandishments are proving highly seductive.
On my desk is a Bulgarian newspaper from last Friday. It happens to be the colour tabloid that succeeded the former Communist-era trade union paper, Trud (labour), but it could have been almost any Bulgarian paper of the day. The gaudy picture shows Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, at an open-air rally in Sofia holding a large red, green and white Bulgarian flag. Next to him, Bulgaria's Clinton-esquely photogenic President, Georgi Parvanov, holds up the Stars and Stripes.
As the headline boasts, Mr Powell was in Sofia on a "thank you, allies" trip. In making a 1,500 mile detour from his route between Moscow and Berlin, Mr Powell was telling Bulgaria, in a most ostentatious way, that its support for the war on Iraq was appreciated.
To small countries, accustomed to their place off the international diplomatic itinerary, such attention is flattering. It cost the United States several hours of Mr Powell's time, some extra aviation fuel, and not much more. Of such gestures are new alliances made.
Stung by accusations that its neglect of personal diplomacy hobbled its preparations for war in Iraq - Turkey's failure to supply facilities for US troops is an especially sore point - the Bush administration is making up for lost time. This week, Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, visited Romania on a similar thank you mission. And President George Bush will deliver Washington's biggest thank you when he visits Krakow, ancient seat of Polish kings and birthplace of Pope John Paul II, next month.
Bulgaria, Romania and Poland are in the vanguard of the group that Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, memorably christened "new Europe", imputing to them more Atlanticist loyalty than the "old Europeans", epitomised by France and Germany.
For the best part of six months, Washington has done little to disguise its hope that a more numerous and disparate Europe will mean that individual members can be picked off one by one to support American objectives. In the process, it has been none too fussy about such legal and constitutional niceties as whether the "new Europeans" are full, voting members of the EU yet, but its efforts are paying off handsomely.
All the "new European" governments signed one of two open letters supporting US policy before the war on Iraq. They were almost unanimous in supporting the war. They are keen to see US troops remain in Europe and will lease America bases if asked. A weekend in Bulgaria, spent with a wide-ranging group of "new Europeans", helped to explain why. The ghost of the former Soviet Union still haunts these parts, and President Vladimir Putin's announcement of plans for long-range missiles only revived old fears. These countries are still grateful to Washington for supporting their applications to Nato. The US has shrewdly cultivated a visible presence in these countries, spearheading its efforts with dollars and illustrious former exiles to show how rich "new Europeans" can become.
The US has also shown itself adept at exploiting hurt national pride among Poles and Czechs, who sometimes feel their ancient European credentials have been insufficiently recognised by the "old Europeans". They have also played on the injured feelings of Romanians and Bulgarians, who feel insulted that they were left off the list of the 10 countries that will join the EU next year.
But for all Washington's success so far in wooing the "new Europeans", the deal is not irrevocably done. Public opinion in most of "new Europe" ran as strongly against the war in Iraq as it did in "old Europe". Everyone claims to know that Washington accompanied its flattery of mostly weak governments with threats to withhold future financial and political support. Among those who supported the war, the reasons were less about weapons of mass destruction and more about overthrowing a tyranny - of a sort they find familiar from their own recent past. People distinguish between supporting the war and supporting President Bush, who is widely disliked.
In Sofia, people tore down the Bulgarian-US posters as soon as Mr Powell's rally was over; anti-American graffiti appeared. And a cartoon published in another Bulgarian paper the following day showed the Bulgarian Prime Minister and returned King sailing towards Scylla and Charybdis, labelled respectively as US and EU. Not one "new European" government supported the US unconditionally, without soul searching.
The perils awaiting those who accept the US embrace too quickly were graphically illustrated by Poland, whose dispatch of 200 commandos to Iraq was rewarded with a sector of northern Iraq that proved a reward too far for the country's exchequer and its military capability. Warsaw asked the Germans for help; they refused, so did Nato. It has now accepted a smaller slice of central Iraq, but will need US help. Ambitious, proud to be European and multilaterally inclined, Poland found itself way out of its depth. Its experience teaches a lesson that other "new Europeans" would do well to heed.Reuse content