October 29, 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama is so beloved in Europe that he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize (which he later won) just 12 days after taking office for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples.” A Pew survey this summer found that 93 percent of Germans, 91 percent of French people, and 86 percent of Brits believed Obama “will do the right thing in world affairs,” a stunning turnaround from their views on the last administration. Yet, this perception belies the reality that Obama has done much less for Europe than his predecessor.
Despite George W. Bush’s defiant “you’re with us or you’re against us” public stance, he actively solicited advice and input from his NATO partners. Obama, by contrast, is saying all the right things in public about transatlantic relations and NATO but adopting a high-handed policy and paying little attention to Europe. And Europe is taking a hint.
The signs are telling, the most important but least reported of which are Obama’s choice of staffing. To be sure, there are some very prominent Atlanticists in the administration. Gen. James Jones, the previous chairman of the Atlantic Council and former supreme allied commander, is national security advisor. And current Atlantic Council Chairman Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has just been appointed as co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. But many important working-level posts in both the State Department and the National Security Council (NSC) are unfilled. Most notably, the EU portfolio at the State Department has been treated as a political hot potato, currently being handled as an additional duty by the Balkans director.
With such a dreadfully weak human infrastructure at home, it’s no wonder next week’s U.S.-EU summit is expected to be a non-event. The preparations have thus far mostly focused on protocol rather than policy. The Europeans are particularly irritated that the luncheon will be hosted by Vice President Joseph Biden rather than the U.S. president himself. Under the previous administration, Bush regularly presided.
On Afghanistan, which all agree is the alliance’s most critical mission, the Europeans are also feeling a bit lorded over. As Jackson Diehl put it, the region’s leaders are “frustrated that they must watch and wait — and wait and wait — for the [U.S.] president to make up his mind.” Mark Mardell, BBC’s North America editor, reported “a growing sense of frustration” at the NATO defense ministers meeting in Slovakia last week over being held in limbo.
Even in Britain, where the public loves Obama, the government has been obsessed, after repeated slights — the infamous CD set gifted to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a press conference canceled due to light snow (or was it fatigue?), being denied a private meeting with Obama at the Pittsburgh summit, etc. — with the notion that the two countries’ “special relationship” is over. To be sure, some of this is overblown — and hardly new — but Obama has been less solicitous of his country’s most natural ally than any U.S. president in memory.
America’s relationship with France bounced back markedly after Nicolas Sarkozy was elected to replace Jacques Chirac. But there have been more than a few bumps since Obama took office. “Obama’s policies are not the Atlanticism that Sarkozy was expecting,” Macleans quotes Hall Gardner, a professor of international politics at the American University of Paris, as saying. “There’ve been several elements of disagreement between the two.”
Some of this can surely be attributed to Sarkozy’s personal pique over upstart Obama stealing some of his thunder — what the press has dubbed his “Obama complex” — as the U.S. president did by swooping in to take credit for China’s concessions at the G-20, for example. But there is legitimate frustration over the handling of issues as well. Most famously, of course, Sarkozy complained at the United Nations that “President Obama dreams of a world without weapons but right in front of us two countries [Iran and North Korea] are doing the exact opposite.” There are also sharp differences over troop levels and strategic objectives in Afghanistan, Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union, and the future of the French nuclear arsenal.
But if Obama’s ratings are slowly falling on the continent, one place where they are already low — lower than Bush’s, certainly — is in the countries that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dubbed “New Europe.” While Bush made Eastern and Central Europe a top priority — as evidenced by the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and the push for NATO expansion for Georgia and Ukraine — his successor is clearly more concerned about relations with Russia, the very country whose influence New Europe is trying to avoid.
Obama’s handling of the policy reversal on missile defense, in particular, has drawn sharp rebukes from the region, mostly on the execution rather than the policy itself. A Polish official was quoted by United Press International proclaiming that, “Waking Czech Prime Minister Fisher at midnight European time, and calling President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Tusk — who refused to take the call — 70 years to the day that Russia invaded Poland — is politically inept and very offensive.” Another official added, “this simply confirms how unimportant Europe is to the U.S., despite President Obama’s words to the contrary.”
To be sure, this criticism is somewhat overstated. But, as Bush learned to his chagrin, perception can become reality.
And indeed, while most European heads of state dutifully congratulated Obama after the surprise announcement of his Nobel win, the European press was as stunned as their American counterparts. The Independent‘s Ian Birrell assessed that Obama was being “once again lauded for his symbolism and potential rather than his actual deeds.” Peter Beaumont of The Guardian equally snarked, “The reality is that the prize appears to have been awarded to Barack Obama for what he is not. For not being George W. Bush. Or rather being less like the last president.”
It would be ironic, indeed, if the Europeans started longing for the good old days of the Bush administration. But that nostalgia is closer than you might think.