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SKEPTICAL Europe awaits Bush

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BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ President Bush visits Europe this week to meet America's closest friends. What he'll find is more doubt, skepticism and disagreement about the United States than at any time in years.

Whether Washington is pressing for a ballistic missile defense system, or abandoning plans for emissions controls, or pushing genetically modified foods, there's plenty of sharp opposition.

Many Europeans see the United States today as a nation totally absorbed with its own interests and ready to go it alone in the world if its allies don't bend to its will.

``The administration is perceived as unilateralist, aggressive and in many ways more interested in protecting itself, the United States, from the world than protecting the world from itself,'' said Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations.

As a consequence, criticism of the United States is rising as the conservative administration in Washington attempts to deal with the largely center-left governments of Europe.

Bush begins his first trip to Europe as president on Tuesday in Madrid, Spain, then flies to Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday to meet NATO leaders. He heads to Goteborg, Sweden, on Thursday for talks with European Union members. He will speak on U.S.-European ties Friday in Warsaw, Poland, and hold his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Russia has been a key to American foreign policy for years, first as a fierce adversary, now as something closer to a partner _ and on issues like missile defense, more like a sparring partner. Bush needs Russia's acquiescence to his missile defense plans if he is to sell his own allies on the deal, but Moscow has balked.

The Bush administration wants to build a system capable of shooting down ballistic missiles fired by from unpredictable nations like North Korea, Iraq and Iran. Some allies are skeptical about the threat. Others agree the threat exists, but see the response as political. Still others agree with the Kremlin's claim that abandoning the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty between Moscow and Washington will spark a new arms race and weaken security in Europe.

When it comes to the U.S. missile-defense plans, ``France and Britain, the two western European nuclear powers, have a shared interest with Russia and China,'' said Svein Melby of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

``I'm sure that both China, Russia and the two western European nuclear powers to some degree are skeptical of increased efforts on ballistic missile defense because this will reduce their international influence and give the United States an even stronger position,'' he said.

If the Russians can be persuaded to go along with the missile defense plans, however, the European allies would probably fall into line, Melby said, predicting the same would be true for Democrats in the U.S. Congress who are also wary about the administration's aims.

Talk of a bumpy road in U.S.-European relations should not be exaggerated, said Dick Leurdijk of the Netherlands' Clingendael Institute: There have always been disagreements and they are almost always resolved satisfactorily. Nonetheless, he said, tough times lie ahead.

``Looking at the missile defense issue, Kyoto, the Balkans, these things are here to stay for the coming years. They will determine the political climate, and Bush can expect extremely critical European partners,'' said Leurdijk.

Europe was outraged earlier this year when the Bush administration announced it would not adhere to pollution-cutting targets set in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement aimed to stem global warming.

Europe's nations often have a hard time agreeing among themselves. That makes forging agreements with them doubly difficult, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote in an article this week in The New York Times.

``If we don't agree, you condemn the disagreement, if we agree, you tell us we are isolating ourselves from you,'' said Moisi.

A case in point is the EU plan for its own 60,000-man force for use in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions _ particularly when NATO declines to get involved in a crisis. In part, the plan is a response to years of U.S. pressure for Europe to do more for its own security.

But while Washington agrees that enhancing European military capability is good for NATO, some Americans fear the European force could weaken U.S. influence on the continent.

Europe's U.S. ties are also frayed by trade disputes over issues including aircraft sales, beef hormones and steel supplies.

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