A couple of weeks ago, the 25 European Union (EU) ambassadors in Washington reviewed what we have seen so far of George W. Bush's second-term foreign policy. After a lengthy period in which the transatlantic alliance had seemed something of an oxymoron, the conversation was surprisingly upbeat.
When the president visited Brussels in February, his hosts were sceptical that his new attentiveness presaged much more than an indulgent tone. Ten months later, the ambassadors agreed -- albeit one or two grudgingly -- that there had also been a marked and welcome change in substance.
As they ran through the issues that had most troubled the alliance, it was evident that the US had indeed rediscovered diplomacy. Washington had at last engaged seriously in the Middle East peace effort. In Lebanon, it had worked closely with its old enemy France and, better still, through the United Nations, to force a Syrian withdrawal.
The administration has shown a similar willingness to act in concert with other governments -- this time China, Russia, Japan and South Korea -- in reaching an agreement with North Korea which could see Pyongyang exchange nuclear weapons for economic and security guarantees.
Perhaps most importantly for Europe, the biggest policy shift had been in the US approach to Iran. A year ago, the talk in Washington had been of pre-emptive military strikes to end Iran's nuclear ambitions, The diplomatic efforts in Tehran of the EU three -- Britain, France and Germany -- attracted visible disdain. Now, the US administration had joined, albeit at a deniable distance, those negotiations. It had helped also to draw Russia, China and India into a diplomatic net around Iran.
By and large, the credit for these shifts goes to the state department. During Mr Bush's first term, Colin Powell was often sidelined in the big foreign policy debates. Condoleezza Rice, Mr Powell's successor as secretary of state, is widely regarded as among the strongest figures in the administration.
One former veteran of Bill Clinton's state department describes Ms Rice as the most powerful holder of the office since Dean Acheson. Hyberbole or otherwise, her close friendship with, and ready access to, the president has transformed the status of her department. Two of her key advisers -- Robert Zoellick, the deputy secretary, and Nicholas Burns, the under-secretary for political affairs -- have skill and experience in negotiating with Europeans. They are not natural ideologues. Mr Burns has re-energised diplomacy in the Balkans. Another small, but intriguing sign of the department's new-found confidence is a willingness to seek the counsel of policymakers from previous, Democrat, administrations.
A word of caution. There remain plenty of ifs and buts in this story of rediscovered harmony. The insurgency in Iraq is an ever-present reminder of the transatlantic chasm that opened during the first term. For most Europeans it is a subject best not discussed. Were the US to face strategic failure in Iraq, one can imagine the mutual recrimination.
Nor has there been a fundamental change of heart in the administration. Mr Bush, you will hear European diplomats say, has embraced multilateralism only to the extent that the quagmire in Iraq has closed off other options. Washington has rediscovered the efficacy of soft power -- the capacity to persuade rather than coerce -- because it had to. Americans and Europeans, in other words, still see the world through different lenses.
In foreign policy, though, practice counts for as much as theory. Europeans pride themselves on being realists. If the administration is consulting and concerting on the issues that matter, they can scarcely complain.
Yet when Ms Rice travels to Europe this week she will discover that all her careful diplomacy could be undone. If the decision to invade Iraq turned much of the world against Mr Bush, the rising furore about US mistreatment of detainees threatens to lose Washington its remaining friends.
You do not have to believe everything you read about secret gulags in eastern Europe, routine abduction and "rendition" of terrorist suspects to regimes that practise torture, and the inhumane treatment of US-held prisoners to understand how corrosive the controversy has become of America's authority, The chilling images of Abu Ghraib are fixed in the minds of the world. GuantanAmo Bay remains one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of America's enemies.
Mr Bush says that the US does not practise torture. The state department insists that the activities in Europe of the Central Intelligence Agency have complied with international law. But even for Washington's closest Iraq -- the denials are rendered virtually worthless by the stance of Dick Cheney, the vice-president.
Mr Cheney wants an exemption for the CIA from a congressional prohibition on "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" of detainees. Why, people ask, would the CIA need an exemption if it did not employ torture?
The politician who sees this most clearly is an American, not a European. John McCain, a veteran who was himself captured and tortured during the Vietnam war, has sponsored two successful senate resolutions banning mistreatment of enemy combatants and terrorist suspects.
Mr McCain has argued consistently that such practices at once undermine America's moral standing and gravely endanger its own soldiers should they fall into enemy hands. There is nothing soft about upholding the rule of law. "It is about us and the role we play as defenders of democracy, freedom and humane treatment," Mr McCain said recently.
My sense is that there are many in the administration who agree with him. At a recent private event in Washington, John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, conspicuously failed to back Mr Cheney. I have heard another senior aide to the president say that he had no intention of "defending the indefensible".
Mr McCain seems optimistic that Mr Bush has understood the damage this is doing to America. Yet Mr Cheney refuses to back down. It is probably too late now to defuse the argument over the CIA's past activities. It is not too late for Ms Rice to declare that, in pursuit of the spread of democracy and the rule of law around the world, the US will henceforth set the example its friends have come to expect of it.