BERLIN – Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is off to Europe this week, where he’ll visit leaders in Germany, Poland, and Estonia before returning to the United States to announce his presidential campaign on June 15 in Miami.
Bush will open the trip on Tuesday in Berlin with a speech at an economic conference hosted by the ruling Christian Democratic Union. The party’s fiscal conservatism under German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is also speaking at the conference, lines up with Bush’s views and the event will give him a chance to tout his vision for a “right to rise” economy.
Wading into more sensitive foreign policy issues, Bush will urge European leaders to defend Ukraine from Russian interference, according to excerpts released by his staff.
“Seventy years after America and Western Europe began to build the post-war architecture of security, that alliance is as relevant as the day it was founded,” Bush is expected to say. “Who will say otherwise, as we watch the fate of Ukraine, slowly unfold in tragedy? Ukraine, a sovereign European nation, must be permitted to choose its own path.”
From there he’ll participate in a series of meetings, some public and some private, including a roundtable with Polish civil and business leaders in Warsaw on Thursday and a discussion of joint security concerns in Tallinn on Friday between American and Europe.
The trip gives Bush, who has less direct experience in foreign policy compared to his 2016 primary rivals who serve in the Senate, a chance to demonstrate he does have expertise in the field. In recent weeks, he’s sought to push back against the notion he’s less versed in the world, pointing to 15 international trade missions he took as governor and, per his aides’ count, 89 visits to 22 countries since leaving office.
It’s not without risk, however – a number of presidential contenders have run into trouble during similar foreign visits.
Most dramatically, Mitt Romney’s world tour in the summer of 2012 turned into a debacle after the then-Republican nominee offended British leaders by questioning preparations for the London Olympics and angered Palestinians by implying that Israel’s economy demonstrated the Jewish state’s cultural superiority over the occupied West Bank and Gaza. By the end, Romney’s spokesman was telling traveling reporters to “kiss my ass” in Poland, one of who shouted at Romney “What about your gaffes?”
The curse has continued into the current election cycle. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s also eyeing a bid for the GOP nomination, caused a stir in February after he called for a “balance” between public health and parental choice in vaccinations. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sought to sidestep hot-button topics during a U.K. trip later the same month but created a multi-day distraction when he also took a “punt” on a British journalist’s question on the theory of evolution.
“It seems to me the downsides are bigger than the upsides,” Jeremy Shapiro, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, told msnbc. “Gaffes are so easy to make because it’s so difficult to understand the nuances of foreign audiences for people who have spent all their time concentrating on U.S. politics.”
Bush, perhaps wisely given his fellow Republicans’ experience, is skipping England on this trip.
His stops in Poland and Estonia make sense on multiple levels. On the campaign trail, Bush has courted voters by promising a hard line against Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Eastern Europe, given its history of conflict with Russia, makes for a strong backdrop for that message and Polish and Estonian leaders will be eager for reassurances that the United States has their back against any future aggression.
“The expectations of Jeb Bush’s visit are really serious because…they concern a clear statement of US commitment to European security and security of Poland,” Marcin Zaborowski, Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, told NBC News.
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There’s even some room for Bush to flatter his hosts on domestic policy: On the campaign trail, Bush likes to cite Estonia’s simple tax filing system as a model for the U.S.
Eastern Europe is also a rare region where Bush’s family ties lend an unambiguous boost to his image. Unlike Germany, Poland was a strong ally during the Iraq War – prompting then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to dismiss its Western European neighbors as “old Europe” – and relations remained warm even at the lowest ebb of George W. Bush’s second term. Sixty-eight percent of Poles expressed a favorable view of the United States when he left office, according to a 2008 Pew survey of global attitudes, compared to just 31% of Germans.
As those numbers suggest, Germany is trickier territory for a candidate named Bush. There’s a good chance he’ll face more questions from the German press about his brother’s deeply unpopular record on Iraq, which still colors views of America, and about the Edward Snowden-supplied report that the U.S. spied on Merkel’s calls, which became a PR disaster in a country still reeling from the legacy of the East German surveillance state. The Snowden mess occurred under President Obama’s watch, but Bush has been a strong defender of America’s intelligence agencies and it will require a deft touch to discuss the issue in a country whose public has very different views on spying.
“Many Americans will not understand how angry the Germans are about [NSA spying] and I think it would be important for Jeb Bush to see that,” Dr. Henning Riecke, an expert on US-European relations with the German Council on Foreign Relations, told NBC News.
Bush can’t afford any bad press in Europe ahead of his Miami campaign launch. After being tagged as a tentative frontrunner early this year, he’s struggled to pull away in polls of Republican voters. He faces strong challenges from top tier rivals Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and ongoing concerns among conservatives about his positions on immigration reform and education standards.