Rupert Cornwell: Can Europe and America ever agree on the meaning of democracy and freedom?

It's perfectly obvious that Mr Bush failed to enlist those week-kneed Europeans in the great crusade for freedom

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On a glacial day 19 years ago this month, a Soviet Jewish political prisoner named Natan Sharansky walked to freedom across the Glienicker bridge that divided Potsdam from West Berlin. As a correspondent in what was then West Germany, I remember the moment well. Sharansky's liberation in 1986, part of an East-West prisoner exchange, was a first faint harbinger of the Gorbachev revolution that, the following year, I would be covering from Moscow for this newspaper. What I did not remotely imagine was that Sharansky - now a minister in the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon - would go on to write the definitive guide to the foreign policy of a US President.

On a glacial day 19 years ago this month, a Soviet Jewish political prisoner named Natan Sharansky walked to freedom across the Glienicker bridge that divided Potsdam from West Berlin. As a correspondent in what was then West Germany, I remember the moment well. Sharansky's liberation in 1986, part of an East-West prisoner exchange, was a first faint harbinger of the Gorbachev revolution that, the following year, I would be covering from Moscow for this newspaper. What I did not remotely imagine was that Sharansky - now a minister in the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon - would go on to write the definitive guide to the foreign policy of a US President.

The book is called The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. George Bush, not noted as a voracious reader, was swept away by it. He recommends the volume to almost everyone he meets. The President quoted it almost verbatim in his second inaugural address, a paean to liberty that left much of the rest of the world feeling distinctly queasy. To make sure nobody missed the point, he devoted much of this month's State of the Union address to the very same theme. And, just in case any Europeans, wedded to abject realpolitik, still did not get the message, he placed this week's trip to the old continent, and his edgy meeting with Vladimir Putin, Mr Gorbachev's successor but one in the Kremlin, squarely under the Sharansky banner.

However grudgingly, you have to hand it to Mr Bush. Once this President has embraced an idea, he does not let go. The book, he has said, "is part of my DNA". Its thesis is precisely that of the President. Mr Sharansky's world, like his, is divided into good guys and bad guys. There can be no "realist" middle way between them. Democracies do not go to war with one another, the book further argues, because a people genuinely free to speak its mind will prevent the murderous follies of their rulers.

What makes Mr Bush's view of the world so maddening is that you can't disagree with his premise. Freedom and democracy are wonderful things. Does the fact that the Americans went to war against Saddam Hussein on the basis of an overcooked falsehood really matter any longer, now that the Iraqis have just voted in a fairly free election? And who cannot share Mr Bush's worries about Mr Putin's stealth attack on Russia's fragile democracy and rediscovered freedoms? After all, the President's ex-dissident scriptwriter has personal experience of how unpleasant it is live under Soviet-style tyranny.

But it's perfectly obvious that Mr Bush this week failed to enlist those weak-kneed Europeans in the great crusade for freedom. Oh yes, everyone made the right noises. French fries were back in fashion at his dinner with Jacques Chirac. There was much bonhomie in Mainz, at his meeting with his his refound friend Gerhard (even though half a German province was sealed off to prevent Mr Bush learning what the locals really thought of him). He paid Europe the compliment of spending no fewer than three nights in its institutional capital of Brussels, a signal that Washington will no longer apply to Europe the previous "Rumsfeld doctrine" of divide and rule.

But although the hatchet may have been buried over Iraq, almost every other dispute between the US and Europe remains unresolved. The Europeans want to extend carrots to Iran, Mr Bush is itching to beat it with a stick. Europe plans to lift its arms embargo to China. Mr Bush is strongly opposed. He wants to tighten sanctions on Syria, the Europeans are not so sure. And so on, and so on. The familiar philosophical divide is as wide as ever. This US President wants to change the world. A thoroughly unconvinced Europe believes it is better advised dealing with the world as it is. And not without reason.

I have two big problems with the Sharansky/Bush approach. For one thing it is surely inapplicable to the conflict he is most familiar with, the one between Israel with the Palestinians, that fuels the dislike of Mr Bush throughout the Arab world. The Palestinians' problem has not been a lack of democracy; the problem is their belief that Israel has stolen their homeland.

Second, there is the small matter of hypocrisy. Mr Bush's hymns to liberty remind me of his administration's approach to proliferation, that other issue central to his "war on terror". Once again the US seems to be telling the rest of humanity to "Do as I say, not as I do." Washington orders Iran and North Korea to renounce nuclear weapons, even as the Pentagon presses to add new bunker-busting weapons to its existing stockpile of 8,000 warheads.

It tells tyrants not to abuse their peoples. The world listens to these strictures, and thinks of Abu Ghraib, of Guantanamo Bay, and of "extraordinary rendition", the practice whereby detainees are secretly whisked around the world to be tortured at clandestine US bases or by the compliant and brutal governments of US allies - the very same "allies" who are being publicly chided by Washington for their failure to embrace democracy and freedom.

But there are also practical problems to the Bush/Sharansky doctrine, which may be summed up in a simple question. Just how powerful really is America? Or to put it more precisely, can the US put money where its mouth is? The emperor Bush may not be without clothes, but they have a distinctly threadbare feel. One reason his trip to Europe went off passably well is that the Europeans know that the US, living far beyond its means and daily deeper in hock to the rest of the world, is in no condition to launch another major military adventure. Nor is that reality lost on the mullahs in Tehran, or on the mysterious little despot in Pyongyang.

Some form of democracy now may take root in Iraq; conceivably, it might spread to other countries in the Middle East as well, just as Mr Bush insists. What is incontrovertible is that the Iraq war has cost $250bn and counting. It has stretched the US military to breaking point. These burdens surely rule out any further war of choice by Washington in the foreseeable future.

Take the direct use of American military power off the table, and what is left? Sanctions, even when strictly applied by the UN, rarely work. They didn't in Iraq, they haven't with Iran or North Korea. Deliberate isolation is no more effective: why on earth, one wonders, does the US not consider the restoration of diplomatic ties with Iran; at least it would have a better idea of what is happening there on the ground.

Never, after all, did the US sever diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, even when it was doing its worst with the likes of Mr Sharansky - and ultimately the policy of engagement paid off, magnificently. The other extreme, of course, is Cuba. The sole result of 40 years of sanctions, isolation and lectures about democracy by the US has been to enshrine Fidel Castro as the longest serving national ruler on the planet.

Such considerations, however, do not feature large in the thoughts of the man who walked to freedom that icy Berlin morning 19 years ago, nor in the policy of the President he so influences. We are left with Mr Sharansky's passion, and Mr Bush's unshakeable will. I doubt they will be enough.

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