Next U.S. Leader Cannot Undo Bush's Mess

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The U.S. presidential election campaign is entering its decisive phase. The candidates for the rival parties seem to have been determined, and now the real struggle begins.

U.S. President George W. Bush is suffering record-low approval ratings, and his exit is eagerly awaited both at home and abroad. Europeans are especially looking forward to a change in the White House. A rebirth of unity among Western countries, which the Bush administration has all but destroyed, is one of the most popular discussion topics on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Bush administration was ruined by its arrogance. Washington's certainty that it could take on the world single-handedly reached its height following the military invasion of Iraq. As a result, U.S. relations with its European allies have been seriously damaged. Although Washington has been trying since the end of 2004 to rectify matters by withdrawing from its blatantly unilateral approach to global affairs, it has been unable to restore even the appearance of mutual understanding with its European partners. The conflict at last month's NATO summit in Bucharest over membership for Ukraine and Georgia served as vivid proof of European discontent with Washington.

As far as the crisis in Iraq is concerned, one thing is certain -- the United States cannot afford to pull its troops out of the country. The experience of the last 18 months has clearly shown that the degree of even relative stability in Iraq is directly proportional to the number of U.S. divisions stationed there. If it does turn out to be possible to shift the responsibility for maintaining order over to Iraqi institutions, it will have to be a long, gradual process, and it will necessarily entail reliance on the occupation forces.

A hasty withdrawal would spell catastrophe for Iraq itself, which would cease to exist as a unified state. Both U.S. presidential candidates probably understand this, even though Senator Barack Obama has promised to bring the troops home quickly.

In practice, this will mean that the new U.S. president will distance himself from Bush's failed policies and turn to allies for help in Iraq. By appealing to the ideal of trans-Atlantic solidarity, Washington will call on Europeans to share the burden of stabilizing Iraq.

But the current situation in Afghanistan is a good indication of how much enthusiasm continental Europe is likely to have for sharing the burden in Iraq. For example, the United States and NATO have not been able to persuade Germany to relocate its forces to the southern part of the country where allied forces are battling the Taliban -- even though the Afghanistan military campaign (in contrast to that in Iraq) is being carried out in accordance with United Nations resolutions and enjoys widespread support.

Of course, we could assume that the United States will try to shift the balance of power within NATO, as the European member countries have been trying to do under France's leadership. But Europe's motive for gaining a greater role in NATO is to ensure that the alliance won't be dragged into operations at odds with its understanding of the organization's mission. Europe would like to see NATO as a crisis manager for regional problems of interest to the Old World -- from Kosovo to Chad. For the United States, NATO is a tool with which it exercises global leadership.

It is hard to imagine what could convince Europe to forego its own wishes and support the United States as the dominant player in global affairs. Only the appearance of a common enemy as powerful and threatening as the former Soviet Union might be able to accomplish this. But Russia, which has few allies that can be taken seriously, lacks the potential to play that role, despite its high opinion of itself as a reborn global superpower.

Senator John McCain has formulated a concrete idea for a trans-Atlantic coalition to counter new dangers. His favorite brainchild is a league of democracies. This alliance would unite democratic countries around the world, from the United States and Brazil to India and South Korea. They would stand in opposition to authoritarian states, primarily China and Russia. This is the logic behind McCain's call to remove Russia from the Group of Eight and replace it with Brazil and India, but not China.

This model has all of the markings of neoconservative publicist Robert Kagan. In 2002, Kagan proclaimed that the United States and Europe had taken irreversibly divergent paths. Europe, he explained, had lost its will, having plunged into its own morass, leaving the United States as the only force in the world realistically capable of decisive action. That stance served as the grounds for the United States' subsequent unilateral steps in Iraq in open defiance of Europe's wishes.

Now Kagan, instead of putting up walls between the Atlantic coasts, is trying to build bridges between them. And to add urgency to that process, he has identified a terrifying threat -- authoritarian capitalism from China and Russia -- against which all responsible democracies should unite. This constitutes a serious bid for a systemic confrontation, replete with ideological undertones.

But if McCain were to occupy the Oval Office, his determination to create a league of democracies might weaken. Looking at it objectively, the majority of the world's population would not be included in such a league, and those excluded hold most of the planet's natural resources, along with a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. A new Cold War in this configuration would be extremely dangerous -- especially with the absence of international institutions capable of regulating those relations. And mobilizing all of Europe to join such a league would hardly be realistic.

In any case, the United States will probably start a new "peace offensive" intended to win Europe's allegiance and, at the same time, to bring its activities in line with Washington's interests. Europe is unable to formulate a united political platform. It therefore thrashes about in the attempt, which in turn only increases its unease.

Russia has not ruled out the prospects of building a new relationship with the European Union and the United States. Moscow has made it known that if the West refuses to negotiate with Russia as an equal, it will find other influential friends. It is no small matter that President Dmitry Medvedev began his foreign policy activity with Kazakhstan and China. And Moscow's hint at rapprochement with Beijing only serves to fuel Western ideologists' warnings of a "new threat" from Russia and China.

Thus, it would seem that, instead of entering a new epoch in international relations, we are still trapped in the same old vicious circle.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.