HOPING TO SMOOTH OVER RUFFLED FEATHERS IN THE CAPITALS OF CONTINENTAL EUROPE, THE WHITE HOUSE SENDS THE PRESIDENT ON A CHARM OFFENSIVE NEXT WEEK

It won't be easy. Setting aside the personal chemistry, both sides have hardly forgotten the series of snubs and grudges that began four years ago when Condoleezza Rice told European ambassadors in Washington that the Kyoto global warming agreement was dead. What followed might be funny if it wasn't so serious. Did NATO really feel wounded that it wasn't asked to take part in the war in Afghanistan? Did the White House really try to interfere in the German elections by lashing out at Gerhard Schroeder? Does Jacques Chirac really believe in something as obtuse as multipolarity?

The clearest sign that both sides want to kiss and make up is the extraordinary care that has surrounded this tour. On paper, Bush's trip is a carefully staged exercise in ego-stroking--the sort of diplomatic massage that the Bush administration is hardly renowned for.

It starts, of course, with the French. White House officials say it was Chirac's turn to come to Washington since his last visit was three and a half years ago, soon after 9/11. (Bush has traveled twice to France in the last two years.) Citing a busy timetable of domestic travel, the president's aides couldn't find time for the French president before the trip to Europe, so they offered a private dinner in Brussels--one that would took place before the real action began and certainly before Bush traveled to Germany. "It was our scheduling problems that prevented [Chirac] from coming [to Washington]. He wanted to come before the trip," says one senior administration official. "He didn't want to look like an afterthought."

That artful piece of geopolitics sets the stage for an intriguing dinner at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Brussels on Monday, America's Presidents' Day. The past and future resentments linger on both sides of the dining table. France still feels slighted over Iraq, where its offer to train military police officers has been spurned. And the Bush administration remains deeply suspicious over Iran, where it believes the French are too sympathetic to the regime and too keen to boost trade to put an end to the Islamic regime's nuclear programs.

That's why the White House intends to ignore all talk of multipolarity--Chirac's vision of a world with multiple superpowers--to focus on points of agreement, like promoting democracy or the Israeli-Palestinian Roadmap to peace. "You'll hear the president talk about common values," says a senior aide. "We want to work with the French and the Germans to support these objectives. We don't want the transatlantic community bickering with each other over ideologies instead of getting on and doing things together." That includes the French offer to train Iraqi police. "We would be happy to see the French doing that in ways that the Iraqi government would want," the senior aide says. "It would be great for the French and great for the international community."

That kind of kid glove treatment extends to the entire European Union. After dinner with Chirac, Bush will meet with every possible combination of European leaders--in NATO, in the European Union and among the nation states. No sensitivity is too small to be overlooked. Bush will even meet with an obscure group known as the EU troika, representing the country holding its rotating EU presidency (currently Luxemburg), Europe's foreign policy head (Javier Solana), and the president of the European Commission bureaucracy (Jose Manuel Barroso). Then it's on to Mainz, Germany, for a soft session with Schroder that includes a roundtable-style event with "real" German folk.

Of course there are still serious points of dispute, including the run-up to war in Iraq and the American treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. There are also new reasons to fall apart over Iran and the lifting of the EU's arms embargo on China.

But there are also real reasons to be hopeful, not least in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in Iraq--where two new governments hold out the chance of real change. That's no small combination in world politics. If anything, the transatlantic relationship has been improving for the last year, since leaders on both sides of the ocean began to despair of the downwards spiral of violence in the Middle East. As the Iraqi insurgency took hold, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stagnated, both sides realized the trade-off became clear: Europe needs the United States in Israel, and the U.S. needs Europe in Iraq.

Whether Bush is welcomed Condi-style depends on something more than hope. What the president says is likely to have far more impact than how or where he says it. Bush is not traveling to Europe to strike a note of humility or apologize for past mistakes--and if European leaders are expecting that, they will surely be disappointed. Instead, as Bush explained when he announced the trip in mid-November, the purpose of the visit is simple. "It is to remind people that the world is better off, America is better off, Europe is better off, when we work together," he told reporters in the East Room of the White House. "And there's a lot we can accomplish working together. There's a lot we have accomplished working together."

In practice, that means a trip that starts with a high-minded speech in Brussels about democracy and freedom. But it also means a trip that ends in Bratislava, Slovakia, for a tough encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Does the drive for democracy include advising Putin to keep out of Ukraine's politics? Does it mean pushing yet again for an end to Russian nuclear cooperation with Tehran?

For all the stagecraft of the European tour, this brief trip will give us something clear. Not a treaty or a protocol, but something altogether more meaningful: the earliest sign of whether Bush's diplomacy will succeed in his second term where it failed in his first.