Barack Obama may seem to be adopting European policies at home yet transatlantic relations remain bitter and strained. Much of the European public still adores the president but the continent’s political leadership is positively disillusioned.
The rapture became apparent last year when in March, the Czech prime minister characterized the Obama Administration’s bailouts and stimulus policies as “the road to hell.” The president visited Strasbourg, France the very next month to deplore the growing antipathy between Europe and the United States. Europeans were too often guilty of an “insidious” anti-Americanism, he believed, while Americans had at times “shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive” of Europe’s accomplishments.
As far as Europe was concerned, the analysis rang true. Anti-Americanism had been on the rise in the wake of President George W. Bush’s supposedly preemptive war against Iraq which traditional European allies like France and Germany had refused to support. What’s more, the Americans just didn’t seem to realize what immense progress the European countries were making in coming to a permanent political union. At times, it appeared as though Washington would rather their allies formed a United States of Europe already and get it over with — something which every politico outside of Brussels knows is impossible.
No matter his sound analysis, the president has hardly managed to reassure Europe. Instead there is doubt about his commitment to the Atlantic alliance ever since he declared himself a “Pacific president” while in February, the White House signaled its frustration with Europe’s apparent lack of cohesive leadership by not having Obama show up for a EU-USA summit in Madrid, Spain.
Further discord has subsequently erupted over how best to tackle the global recession. Since Greece nearly bankrupted itself last April, Europe has been preaching austerity and pondering tougher budget rules to apply to all eurozone members. Ahead of the G20 summit in Toronto, Canada last month, President Obama urged his colleagues to keep spending instead and so stimulate their economies into a speedy recovery. He couldn’t persuade Europe’s largely conservative leadership though and the world’s strongest economies agreed to cut their deficits in half by 2013. Obama headed home, claiming victory but obviously unable to get the rest of the world to mimic his Keynesian approach.
Little wonder that European Commission President José Barroso told The Times last week that, “The transatlantic relationship is not living up to its potential.”
Ever since the end of the Cold War there has been mounting frustration in the United States about Europe supposedly free riding on American power. Charles Krauthammer powerfully revealed that there is such a thing as anti-Europeanism with the American right when in April of last year he lambasted the continent for “sucking on America’s tit for sixty years.”
Many Americans would rather Europe be grateful still for having been saved from German occupation twice in a century than complain about the wars it wages in the Middle East. Even as recent as 2003, when the United States prepared to invade Iraq, references to World War II were abound.
History, however, is no friend to such simplistic references. As much as Europe may benefit from America’s empire today, up to the early twentieth century, the roles were quite reverse, with European powers wielding imperial and brutal force for the United States, isolationist and weary of “permanent alliances,” to prosper.
Yet after nearly a century, the American superpower, some fear, is stagnant. Globalization may well forecast the end of American ascendancy in spite of the United States remaining the cultural, economic and military hegemon of our age. Americans shiver every time they’re told that China now finances their national debt. The country’s public finances may be in a dire state indeed but that alone does not spell doom for its leverage around the world.
At the same time, the rise of China will inevitably result in less American influence and a greater global dependence on Chinese industries and finance. If America is serious about countering perceived Chinese encroachment on its international clout — and judging from its rampant Sinophobia, it is — Europe should be indispensable. To ensure a new Atlantic order that is able to perpetuate the American century, Washington has no choice but to “yank Europe kicking and screaming into conflict zones,” as Robert Kaplan put it. If rather than insulting the continent’s political choices, the administration were to signal more commitment, there may be a lot less kicking in the future.