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Obama and Europe, Cont.

4 December 2008

4:13 PM

4 December 2008

4:13 PM

Dan Drezner politely suggests I'm talking (or writing, rather) through my hat in this gloomy assessment of the transformational potential of the Obama presidency. Dan prefers to see the potential rather than the pitfalls. And he may be correct. It would probably be better for all if he were.

As it happens, I do think he's right to argue that many european policy elites – and certainly much of the think tank world – do believe that Afghanistan must and can be saved. And it is certainly possible that withdrawing form Iraq (if that proves possible) could create the space and manpower needed to refocus on the "Good War". Nonetheless, I suspect european public opinion has soured on or, to be more generous, is simply confused by a conflict that drags on with little sign of progress, let alone an endgame. Now it's certainly possible that Obama can leverage his popularity and the idea of a fresh start and lead by example in Afghanistan. Jim Jones' experience with NATO and Europe Command should help – though of course Jones will be familiar with the limits of what NATO can realistically achieve, as well as its potential.

Iran seems more difficult, however. The proliferation consequences of an Iranian bomb are, to say the least, disconcerting but it's hard to imagine there being any european enthusiasm for a military strike against Tehran. And that, of course, remains the default, bottom-line US position. Let us hope it never comes to that.


What is also striking, however, is how, as Ben Macintyre writes in the Times today, Obama's relationship with europe is very different from that of most of his predecessors. It's not merely that he's a different generation, it's that his cultural background is Kenya, Kansas, Hawaii and Indonesia. He's one of the few Presidents of recent times who has not looked to europe and perhaps the first to see it as just another, if still important, place. Even Bill Clinton had been a Rhodes Scholar (though not a particularly happy one) while George W Bush had actually spent more time in Scotland than any other foreign country prior to becoming President. And of course, he was part of an Andover and the Ivy League elite, even if he had transferred his primary self-identity to Texas. His father, of course, like Reagan before him, was steeped in the transatlantic alliance.

So, even more than Clinton and Dubya, Obama's Presidency marks a break with the established conventions of the transatlantic alliance. An alliance built, of course, on WW2 and the Cold War. His memoir, as Macintyre reminds us, finds Obama feeling “edgy, defensive, hesitant” while travelling in Europe. “It wasn't that Europe wasn't beautiful,” he writes. “It just wasn't mine.”

Perhaps this means Obama has the benefit of a fresh, less misty-eyed perspective, one that casts off the humbug of the "Special Relationship" and enduring ties with the "old continent". But it may also mean – time will tell! – that he's less instinctively attuned to european sensibilities and interests. His enthusiasm for Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership could be taken to suggest that, for instance.

On the flip side, Obama's break with history may mean that he will be less likely to take the Bushian attitude that "you guys owe us". A partnership needs to be just that and it's not a partnership if one side isn't on occasion permitted to say "No". Still, so far Obama seems to have been suggesting a recalibration of the essential Washington worldview, rather than any fundamental change to it. Nonetheless, as I say, it would might well be best if Dan is right and I am, er, not.


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