Commentary Magazine


He’s not the Barack Obama Europe Knew

Where Ronald Reagan tore down a wall, Barack Obama has hit one – and it’s made of bricks. European support for the American president is suffering. As Gregor Peter Schmitz asserts in Der Spiegel, “it has become clear that the most contentious issues [between the U.S. and Europe] have been shelved.” This means Obama is no longer asking Europe to replicate his idea of a stimulus plan and he’s not pushing for military help in Afghanistan. On both issues European leaders have declared, “No we can’t.” 

And people say Bush squandered the world’s sympathy? Anyone remember nuggets like this from the Obama Summer of Love? 

Spend a few days in western Europe talking about American politics and you discover that you are in deepest Obamaland. Not much different from Berkeley, California, or the South Side of Chicago.

As a woman put it to me in Paris: "We want America back.”

Sure they do – preferably as a collection of taxpaying colonies. And on the campaign trail, Obama probably would have considered ruling that out bad form. Back then former French Cultural Minister Jack Lang said, Obama is “the America we love …”; but the truth is Obama campaigned as the Europe Europeans love: anti-Bush, anti-war, pro-state, pro-green, and ever disgusted with American power. Europeans’ problem now is that, even though Obama is still Obama, he became “America” once he took office. 

For starters, America cannot afford to casually “end” a war it is winning.  Obama’s anti-Iraq War agenda has evaporated. European publics are disappointed, but their leaders will let it slide so long as they don’t have to send troops. This is why Afghanistan is a problem. Obama can call the war on terror whatever he wants, but any concerted use of force against Muslims will be, from a combat standpoint, largely unilateral. European leaders have lost the will and the political capital to risk domestic Islamist upheaval should they raise guns in Muslim lands.  The war on terror’s biggest motivational challenge is not linguistic or stylistic, but demographic.  

As has been the case since the end of World War II, the U.S. is making demands of Europe. Just as predictable, Europe is getting annoyed. EU leaders don’t want to sacrifice soldiers and money for America. For all the EU talk about a multipolar world, Europe’s not ready to buy in to the big table. It prefers to receive soldiers and money from America. And for all Obama’s pledges of multilateralism, he’s finding out that going it alone is not an exercise in arrogance, but an occasional occupational necessity. He tried (he really did) to get Europe to take in some Guantanamo Bay detainees, but that too has been “shelved.” Likewise European support for an effective sanctions regime against Iran is dwindling with Obama in office, not reifying, and this leaves the U.S. as the lone spoiler of Western trade with Iran. 

When it comes to instituting a global stimulus plan, the American president is further to the Left than Europe — and Europe still objects. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy say they favor more government regulation in lieu of more government spending. Obama sought to immediately clarify. He told the Financial Times on Sunday, "The press has tended to frame this as an ‘either/or’ approach. I have consistently argued that what is needed is a ‘both/and’ approach. We need stimulus and we need regulation."  In other words, Europeans are choosing their statist options from an a la carte menu, but in the U.S. we’re going family style. Nevertheless in Europe putting blame for the global financial crisis squarely on America’s shoulders is a relished pastime, and no matter how statist Obama gets, the Continent can’t be seen to follow the U.S.’s lead.

If the perils of simply being American were not enough of a hurdle in approaching Europe, the Obama administration has guaranteed a pronounced schism with its shocking incompetence on matters pertaining to European engagement. President Obama’s intercontinental snubs and faux pas could be considered aberrations if not for evidence of systemic neglect. Schmitz writes, “Compounding the problem, say many, is that US ministries are understaffed as a result of the drawn-out process of appointing people to top positions — a shortcoming that has been especially noticeable in diplomatic appointments.” And diplomatic appointments were to be a hallmark of this administration.  

It is important to remember that Americans were too excited about the prospect of European adoration. Likewise, we should not dismay too much over the return of the heated, but eminently workable, Euro-American partnership. Spirited and respectful disagreement with Europe has helped to define America’s role in the world since long before multilateralism became a celebrated foreign policy end in itself.

 

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