Here is a controversial proposition: we are witnessing an important and welcome about-turn in US foreign policy. Now an incendiary suggestion: instead of gloating, or carping about too little too late, Europe should act to reinforce the shift. Better still, America’s allies could also address the shortcomings in their own responses to the present global disorder.

Washington’s decision to sit down with Iran and Syria in broader regional discussions about the future of Iraq of itself is hardly momentous. Abandoning the effort to isolate Tehran and Damascus is unlikely to rescue Iraq from civil war. But this latest, albeit belated, embrace of common sense fits a pattern. George W. Bush’s administration is shedding its neuralgic aversion to anything that smacks of multilateralism.

The initiative follows the tentative accord in six-party talks to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear programme. That bargain, though yet to be tested in the implementation, saw the US reverse its previous policy of regime change in Pyongyang. North Korea instead was offered comprehensive security guarantees in return for de-nuclearisation.

The latest announcement coincides also with evidence the administration is serious about finding a diplomatic answer to the confrontation with Iran. Visiting Washington last week, I heard several senior US officials dismiss the recent excited talk of imminent military action. Forget the images of stealth bombers and cruise missiles so beloved of today’s television journalism. There was still ample time, the officials insisted, to strike a bargain with Iran. It would be at least another year, probably two, one senior official said, before Iran’s nuclear programme began to cross what the US regarded as red lines.

The build-up of American forces in the Gulf, other officials added, had been misread. Likewise, the policy of standing tougher against Iran in Iraq and Lebanon. The moves have been widely seen as a prelude to war. But the purpose was to strengthen America’s diplomatic hand. Perhaps I am gullible, but these people sounded to me as if they meant it.

The public rhetoric has changed. In remarks last week at Washington’s Atlantic Council, Nicholas Burns, the third-ranking official at the State department, lauded the agreement with North Korea as a “template” for multilateral negotiations with Iran.

“We Americans,” Mr Burns said, “have to re-engage with the rest of the world and we have to speak to the agenda of the rest of the world.” And again: “We do have a certain faith that this patient long-term application of diplomacy can succeed and we do not think that a military conflict with Iran is either desirable or feasible.” I cannot recall when I last heard a US official say that strengthening the United Nations was a priority of US foreign policy. Words, of course, cost nothing. Yet once in a while they speak to substance. And such candour on the part of a senior administration official would have been unthinkable only a year – perhaps even six months – ago.

There is no need for anyone to be starry-eyed about the administration’s motives. The president has not undergone a Damascene conversion to the cause of cuddly multilateralism. Rather, the shift reflects a pragmatism born of the heavy defeat for Mr Bush’s Republicans in last November’s mid-term elections.

The balance of power in Washington has shifted. Vice-president Dick Cheney, the standard-bearer of muscular unilateralism, is looking increasingly out of place. His power has been undercut by Donald Rumsfeld’s replacement at the Pentagon with Robert Gates and the rising influence of the State department’s Condoleezza Rice.
Mr Cheney has been wounded too by the prosecution of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, his former chief of staff. The White House, meanwhile, has taken the opportunity to redefine the national interest in terms of international engagement.

So how should Europeans respond? Like the US, they should look to their own national interests – and recognise that these interests will be best served if Mr Bush makes a success of his new foreign policy.

The transatlantic alliance cannot be put back together as it once was. At a Washington conference hosted by the Weidenfeld Institute and the Woodrow Wilson Center I was struck by the present gulf in strategic thinking between the two sides. Without the glue of the cold war, it has become easier to disagree than agree. To take one example: the administration may now laud the UN, but it still sees it as an instrument, or tool, of policy. For Europeans, the UN is an essential source of international legitimacy.

That said, a hard-headed assessment of interests – above all in the wider Middle East – points to a much greater coincidence than the strategic theorising often suggests. The last thing Europe wants is for the US to launch an attack on Iran. Or for Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons. The answer? Europe should extend the range of financial sanctions on Tehran while prodding Washington to expand the incentives available to the Iranians to open negotiations.

The same mutuality of interest applies in Afghanistan. European ministers privately warn of the risks that Nato might eventually be defeated – and then casually explain why they cannot send extra troops or, worse still, lift the “caveats” that prevent their existing forces from actually fighting the Taliban.

Nato has become a two-tier alliance. The other day I heard a former senior minister in the German government say he was “ashamed” that his country’s troops in Afghanistan had not gone to the aid of the Canadians during a major battle last autumn. Angela Merkel’s government, though, can at least claim it is hamstrung by history. France, Spain, Italy and the rest find it harder to explain why they are not alongside, say, the Dutch, Canadians and British.

As far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned, it often seems, in the description of one distinguished European, that Europe’s policy is to “turn up at meetings”. It needs to do more than bleat. It should be encouraging Ms Rice in her present policy of engagement with the two sides. Creative ways have to be found to open western doors to those in the Hamas leadership willing to recognise the reality of Israel’s existence.

It is unfashionable, I know, to suggest that Europe should work with this American administration. Much easier to say Mr Bush should clean up his own mess. The trouble is that it is everyone’s mess. Washington is now beginning to pursue policies Europeans have long supported. Better, then, to encourage than carp.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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