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    A Times Editorial

    Our real friends

    On his way to sign important new agreements with Russia's Vladimir Putin, President Bush was reminded not to neglect our traditional NATO allies.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 26, 2002

    In the meantime, though, President Bush shouldn't forget who our real friends are. Administration officials say the president was surprised by the vehemence of the criticism from some of his German hosts. If so, he hadn't been paying enough attention. Even our staunchest European allies have been troubled, and occasionally alarmed and angered, by what they perceive as rash unilateralism on the part of the Bush administration.

    The European criticism hasn't always been on the mark. For example, several NATO allies were concerned only months ago that the White House had needlessly alienated Moscow by pushing so quickly for NATO expansion and development of a missile-defense shield. Whatever the merits of those policies, it is clear now that they have not impeded U.S.-Russian cooperation on other issues.

    In other important instances, however, our European allies have raised valid concerns. While in Germany, the president was chastised for, among other affronts, his administration's brusque rejection of the Kyoto climate change treaty, its abrogation of free-trade agreements to protect the U.S. steel industry and its apparent eagerness to go to war in Iraq with or without European support. None of those issues has yet seriously damaged our alliance with Western Europe, but this trip left no doubt that relationships have been frayed. The president's conciliatory speech to the German Parliament was a good first step toward patching things up.

    In Russia, the dialogue was more cordial but less candid. Washington is strongly opposed to Moscow's exporting of nuclear technology to Iran. Putin would not even acknowledge that Russia has been supplying such aid. Real friends, as opposed to people who feign friendship for the cameras, speak honestly about important issues, even at the risk of offending each other occasionally.

    Those unspoken differences did not greatly detract from the broader agreements formalized in Russia. The treaty to cut each side's nuclear arsenals by two-thirds over the next 10 years is not as groundbreaking as Bush and Putin made it seem; Russia would have been forced to decommission most of its nuclear weapons for economic reasons anyway, and our government agreed only to stockpile, rather than destroy, our excess weapons. Still, the treaty exemplifies the broader atmosphere of growing trust between Moscow and Washington. The establishment of Russia's new relationship with NATO may have even greater strategic significance. Russia's cooperation in the war against terrorism, particularly in the control of nuclear material and other weapons of mass destruction, can be crucial.

    All in all, the trip was a productive one for President Bush. In the course of taking another step toward an important new alliance with Russia, he had an overdue reunion with some important old friends whose support he can't afford to take for granted.

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