Barack Obama’s election was generally cheered in Europe two years ago. Long before the new president could start implementing policy, his words had resonated across a continent that was tired of his hawkish predecessor. But as it turned out, Obama’s foreign policy wasn’t that different from George W. Bush’s. Indeed, the latter at least seemed a friend of Europe whereas the Democrat champions a “multilateral” approach, one in which old partnerships may matter less.
Transatlantic relations were bruised during the previous administration when “Old Europe” criticized the preemptive and unilateral invasion of Iraq. Barack Obama promised to change that. “When he came into office,” said one of his deputy national security advisors last week, “a principal goal was strengthening those alliances and restoring America’s standing.”
Although the European populace overwhelmingly continues to support the president over any Republican contender, the political class has been disillusioned somewhat. Before Obama visited Strasbourg last April, the Czech prime minister lambasted his administration’s bailouts and stimulus policies as “the road to hell.” At the G20 in Canada that summer, the world’s leading economies preferred European austerity over American state activism and the president’s appeal to a “rebalancing of trade” in Seoul last November was rejected by Germany and China.
Speaking in Strasbourg, Obama tried to mend fences by saying that Europeans were too often guilty of an “insidious” anti-Americanism while Americans had “shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive” of Europe’s accomplishments.
The analysis rang true in Europe, especially in Brussels where the EU’s mandarins were ever frustrated that Washington didn’t seem to take their efforts seriously nor appreciate the challenges involved in uniting Europe. At times, it appeared as though the Americans would rather their allies formed a United States of Europe already and get it over with — a prospect that Europe’s debt crises have forestalled indefinitely.
Americans have reason to be dissatisfied as well. Europe continues to free ride on American power. As defense budgets are slashed in nearly all of Western Europe, the burden of interventionism will be all the heavier for the United States to bear alone.
The Europeans are growing tired of the war in Afghanistan, the public’s acceptance of suffering military casualties being far lower there than is the case in America, especially for a mission which European governments never managed to convincingly define.
The leading role which Britain and France played in the military intervention in Libya may signal that a new Atlantic order is imminent after all, one in which Europe accepts security responsibility for the Atlantic Ocean and Africa to allow America to focus on the Pacific and the Middle East. But the experience also reminds Europe that it can hardly go it alone. NATO has been calling for more American support but it’s not as though “there are a whole bunch of secret, super effective air assets in a warehouse somewhere that can be just be pulled out [and] solve the situation in Libya,” according to Obama.
For all the usual bickering, transatlantic relations remain vital to both Europe and the United States but the world is changing and can no longer be ruled between the capitals of the Old World and the New.
The president insisted in London on Wednesday that the time for Western leadership hadn’t passed, that “at a time when threats and challenges require nations to work in concert with one another, we remain the greatest catalysts for global action,” but the concert now includes members from Brazil, China, India and beyond who don’t always play by the same rules. This could ultimately strengthen the Atlantic community but in the short run, the two branches are having trouble adjusting to a changing reality.