Thursday, 9 April 2009

Obama's Europe Verdict

Barack Obama is back home after his busy week abroad, and the time for reflection on what his trip to Europe says about his presidency is well underway. In London, Strasbourg, Prague and Istanbul Obama wowed the crowds and charmed the leaders, but what do his words say about how the relationship between Europe and the US is going to be defined during his presidency?

There's no doubt that a dramatic change in US foreign policy was officially unveiled during this trip. On the most symbolic level, the change in tone was striking. Obama seemed to be concentrating on putting distance between his policies and those of his predecessor. He admitted the mistakes America has made, while at the same time arguing that America is still the greatest hope for the world.

His speech in Prague, at the EU-US summit, was the main vehicle to deliver this message. "We must be honest with ourselves," he told the crowd. "In recent years, we've allowed our alliance to drift. I know that there have been honest disagreements over policy. But we also know that there's something more that has crept into our relationship. In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America's showed arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive. But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what's bad."

"On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise; they do not represent the truth. They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us both more isolated."

It is precisely because Obama remains so popular in Europe that he was able to deliver the critical second part of this message. Just imagine George W. Bush in Prague lecturing Europeans on their anti-Americanism. But Obama also warned Europe not to think it can sit back and relax now that Obama has been elected, expecting him to solve all their problems. "America is changing," he said, "but it cannot be America alone that changes."

This later expression of consternation was perhaps essential, as throughout all of these summits European leaders seemed to melt like jelly in Obama's presence, and there is a real risk that Europeans will think that Obama's election means that everything can return to the way it was before. As much as Obama insisted that he respects Europe as an equal partner and he will listen to it, the personal dynamic between the leaders seemed to suggest a very different sort of relationship. It was almost embarrassing to watch Gordon Brown smiling ear to ear during his press conference with Obama in London ahead of the G20, as he basked in the byproduct of the US president's celebrity. And Berlusconi was so overcome with Obamania during the group photo with the queen that he couldn't stop himself from screaming out the US president's name, which earned him a royal rebuke from her majesty.

But after all of Obama's talk about respect for the EU as an equal partner, his speech in Turkey seemed to undermine that. He affirmed the United State's continued support for Turkey's membership in the EU, a very controversial issue within the union. For many this statement not only betrayed a bit of American arrogance in meddling in the internal affairs of the EU, but also seemed to place Obama firmly in the 'EU as a merely a free trade zone' camp. Many have argued, most notably Nicolas Sarkozy, that the issue of Turkey joining the union is really fundamentally about what type of EU Europe wants. They argue that a strong, federal EU could never work after taking on Turkey as a member, and that the Anglo-Saxon desire to see Turkey as a member is reflective of the British/American desire to see the EU be only a free trade zone. Whether or not one agrees with this analysis, it was perhaps unwise of Obama to wade into the thorny issue immediately after affirming is respect and admiration for the EU. Sarkozy has been willing to look the other way in response to the comments, but privately he must be pretty displeased.

All in all it was an impressive visit, plagued by some hypocrisy and inconsistencies of message but as a whole wildly successful in the main thing it set out to accomplish: unveiling a new US foreign policy that will be a dramatic departure from the previous eight years.


Torsten said...

His speeches looked like the second coming on TV!

Anonymous said...

I hope that Obama will push to put Turkey in the EU, I am happy to hear his words.