Rupert Cornwell: A rare moment of transatlantic convergence

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The Independent Online

Washington is still recovering from the shock. A visiting French leader who really likes us? And just to dispel any lingering doubts about his sincerity, Nicolas Sarkozy had barely returned to Paris than he was paying a personal tribute to Norman Mailer, even more fervent than justified by the rambunctious American author's studies at the Sorbonne almost 60 years ago.

Exit Sarkozy, enter Angela Merkel. The German chancellor was last weekend accorded the signal privilege of a visit to the Bush ranch in Texas – a favour that would never have been extended to her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, incarnation of the bad "Old Europe" that failed to rally to the stars and stripes over Iraq.

And now Gordon Brown is getting in on the act. He might have projected a certain froideur when he met President Bush at Camp David in the summer. But now he proclaims, Blair-like, that the US is Britain's most important ally, that the Anglo-American relationship is "incredibly important to the future of the world", and the three biggest EU powers and Washington had a rare chance to get their act together.

On the face of it, therefore, this is a rare moment of transatlantic convergence. But a dollop of caution is in order. We have seen such moments before. Those with long memories will recall the "Year of Europe" proclaimed by Nixon and Kissinger in 1973, when Britain joined the then EEC. That project foundered on French suspicions and the all-consuming Watergate scandal.

Even more ignominious was the failure of the "Hour of Europe" foolishly decreed by a Luxembourg statesman in 1991, as the Balkan wars broke out, which, of course, Europe proved utterly powerless to stop. This time, too, things may end in tears. Even so, the stars are set unusually fair.

First and foremost, both sides need each other. Washington has realised what imperial, go-it-alone hubris has produced: desperately expensive and probably unwinnable land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an unprecedented global dislike of America – and this when the US economy and currency are more fragile than in decades. In troubled times like these, a man needs his friends. And for all the recent differences, Europe remains the region of the world whose interests are most closely aligned with those of a weakened US.

Naturally, if you're patching things up, you don't bring up old quarrels. Thus, the word Iraq barely passed the lips of Sarkozy and Merkel when they were here. Instead, they highlighted the issues where circumstances push them closer: in Afghanistan, for example, where retreat before the Taliban could only add to the turmoil in neighbouring Pakistan. Not surprisingly, both of them promised, to borrow the Bush phrase, to "stay the course" in the fight against terrorism.

Iran, too, propels Europeans and Americans together. Assume the UN Security Council will not get really tough with Tehran. The only prospect of Washington securing sanctions with teeth is in alliance with the Europeans, who have trade ties and financial markets that give them leverage. For the latter, moreover, agreement on stronger sanctions might head off pressures from the Cheney camp and the neocons for military action.

Last but not least is Kosovo, the last unsolved business of the supposed "hour of Europe". With UN negotiations over the former Yugoslav (now Serbian) province deadlocked, Kosovo's Albanian leaders are promising a unilateral declaration of independence. If so, another row looms between the US and the EU that would probably recognise the new state, and Russia, which out of pan-Slavic loyality to Serbia, would not.

We may not be in a new Cold War, but there is no disguising the nervousness in both Washington and Europe at a resurgent, energy-rich Russia determined to make up for old slights. Just as in the days of the former Soviet Union, a shared threat argues for transatlantic co-operation.

The real question is, is it already too late? Gordon Brown largely owes his job to the epic unpopularity of George W Bush. Sarkozy and Merkel must be all too mindful of what happened to Tony Blair. The Europeans perforce must deal with Bush. But their eyes are already looking over the horizon of January 2009, when a new and, they hope, profoundly more flexible president will move into the White House.

In the meantime, divisions old and new loom as well. The embrace by this administration of the cause of climate change – which probably unites Europe more than any other issue – is late and unconvincing.

And Washington's apparent indifference to the plunging dollar, now causing major pain for sterling and the euro, could provoke another bruising currency crisis. Set against this, a fondness for Norman Mailer is small beer indeed.

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