Taking a fresh route through Brussels


BRUSSELS — Some of the Obama administration's most important hurdles lurk in this deceptively tranquil Belgian capital, home to both NATO and the European Union.

During her first trip to Europe as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton laid the groundwork for addressing many of the issues important to each body — including relations with Russia for NATO and climate change for the EU. But more than that, with the schedule she kept when here, she visibly demonstrated the shifts in U.S. priorities and attitudes.

Clinton, who received gushing adoration, allotted as much time for EU events as for NATO ones, a drastically different approach from the past eight years. When officials from the Bush administration came to Brussels, it was primarily for NATO meetings, with a meeting with an EU official only occasionally tacked on.

It’s not hard to see why the NATO relationship would get top billing for an American official. The outcome of the war in Afghanistan may well rest on allies’ shoulders, but the last administration had little chance in its waning years of being able to generate significant additional support from the Europeans. Now they have admitted they’ll have more trouble saying “no” to a U.S. president hugely popular in their own countries.

But on this trip, it was the thorny question of relations with Russia that grabbed the most headlines from the NATO meeting, with the alliance deciding to resume high-level meetings with Moscow that had been suspended seven months earlier over the war with Georgia.

Rather than flying off after that meeting as the usual U.S. agenda dictates, Clinton rushed downtown to meet European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. She spent her last day here exclusively in EU events, including a town hall meeting at the European Parliament — she is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit that building since Ronald Reagan in 1985 — where she received a standing ovation from more than 800 young people. At her subsequent meeting with top EU officials, the reception was no less enthusiastic, only less demonstrably so.

The U.S.-EU relationship suffered mightily under the Bush administration, due both to policy differences and a lack of nurturing by both sides, and the emphasis of Clinton's trip will not be taken lightly by eurocrats.

Perhaps most significant in EU eyes is President Barack Obama's acceptance of a longstanding invitation from the current EU president, the Czech Republic, to attend a U.S.-EU summit in Prague in early April. It had been thought that Obama's busy agenda, including the G20 summit in London, would make his presence unlikely and his decision to attend has delighted all members, especially the Czechs.

Ron Asmus, director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, attributed Clinton's EU prioritizing to pragmatism. “The U.S. focus will not just be on NATO,” he said, “because the agenda we have requires us to work more and more with the EU.”

In her final Brussels event, after Clinton went on at length about the administration’s commitment to battling climate change, EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner could contain herself no longer. “We have been working from the outset with the United States,” Ferrero-Waldner said. “But we see with this administration a very different attitude ... . We have the United States with us and the United States has Europe with her. This is a different approach and we are quite hopeful!”

Clinton seemed energized by her experiences as well. And the contentious debate provoked by the Russia decision — primarily due to resistance from Lithuania — didn’t deter her at all. “In fact,” she said brightly at her news conference, “I found it invigorating!”

More GlobalPost dispatches on Hillary Clinton:

Inside the Hillary bubble

Clinton wraps up Mideast sweep

What Clinton brings to Egypt

Hillary Clinton confronts reality in the Middle East