When President George W. Bush met European reporters ahead of his six-nation visit to the continent this week, his most telling comment came in response to a question on how he hoped to be perceived by Bulgarians during his stop in Sofia.
“I want them to meet ... a person who represents a nation of decent, compassionate people,” he said. “I represent a country that really cares deeply about the human condition.”
The answer underscored Mr Bush’s desire to showcase the softer side of American power as he seeks to repair damage caused to transatlantic relations – and to public perceptions of the US – by the war in Iraq.
Mr Bush flies to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, on Monday for an eight-day trip that will also take him to Germany for the G8 summit, Poland, Italy, Albania and Bulgaria.
He goes armed with a trio of feel-good foreign policy initiatives calculated to appeal to a European audience – and provide an antidote to the thornier issues of Iran, Kosovo and US-Russian relations that are expected to stalk him during the trip.
Over the past week, Mr Bush has announced fresh sanctions aimed at ending bloodshed in the Sudanese region of Darfur, doubled US funding for the global fight against Aids, and vowed to help tackle climate change by committing the US to long-term cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
The scepticism that greeted the climate change proposals across much of Europe highlighted the depth of mistrust Mr Bush must overcome. But Charles Kupchan, director of European affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think-tank, believes the measures represent a serious attempt to restore America’s reputation as a “compassionate nation”.
“Most of the Bush presidency has been about the global ‘war on terror’ and hard power,” he said. “I think he’s cycling back to this nicer, kinder America.”
The focus on Africa and climate change in part reflects pressure from Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Tony Blair, the outgoing British prime minister, for progress on the issues at the annual G8 meeting of industrialised nations, which starts in the seaside resort of Heiligendamm on Wednesday.
But the changed tone also stems from efforts by the US and Europe to put differences over Iraq behind them and seek areas of agreement. “The good news about Iraq is that both sides of the Atlantic have essentially decided to call a political truce,” said Mr Kupchan. “There’s no longer this ‘are you with us or against us?’ ”
Setting Iraq aside has become easier following the departure from office of the war’s two leading European opponents: Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany and President Jacques Chirac of France. In their place have come two centre-right leaders – Ms Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy – who are more Atlanticist in their outlook.
Ms Merkel has established herself as Mr Bush’s closest ally on the continent and hopes are high that Mr Bush’s first meeting with Mr Sarkozy in Heiligendamm on Friday will mark the start of a similar rapprochement with Paris.
“At the level of personalities and atmospherics, this is a major improvement,” said Mr Kupchan. “Bush was someone who didn’t let bygones be bygones.”
But not all US bilateral relations within the G8 are moving in Mr Bush’s favour. He will lose his closest international friend when Mr Blair retires later this month and Italy is no longer as reliable an ally since SilvioBerlusconi was replaced as prime minister by the left-leaning Romano Prodi last year.
Referring to pressure on Mr Prodi to withdraw Italian troops from Afghanistan, Mr Bush said he hoped his visit to Rome on Saturday would “boost his courage in doing the right thing”.
By far Mr Bush’s most awkward G8 encounter will be with President Vladimir Putin, amid the most serious deterioration in US-Russian relations since the Soviet era. Moscow is bitterly opposed to US plans to locate part of its proposed ballistic missile defence shield in central Europe and the former cold-war rivals are also at odds over US-backed plans to grant independence to Kosovo, the United Nations-administered Serbian province.
Mr Putin has aimed a series of rhetorical blasts at the US of late but, speaking before his departure for Europe, Mr Bush sought to ease tensions. “The cold war is over,” he said. “We don’t agree with Russia all the time but, nevertheless, I view them as a friendly nation, not a hostile nation.”
While Mr Bush’s language was placatory, his itinerary this week appears designed to deliver a clear message that Washington will not be shaken from its objectives. His stops in the Czech Republic and Poland will be dominated by talks about the missile shield, while the Albanian and Bulgarian legs will be focused on Kosovo and Nato enlargement.
“[The itinerary] is understandable in Russian as easily as it is in English,” said Simon Serfaty, global security chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “The message is that we’re going to do what we’re going to do.”
Some of the drama has been removed from the Bush-Putin meeting by last week’s announcement that the Russian leader will travel to the US for more talks next month. “There’s recognition that there has to be a more in-depth attempt to address problems in the relationship,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.