The Peace Prize has a price tag - for Europe
BERLIN -- The difference in responses on both sides of the Atlantic to the Nobel Peace Prize for U.S. President Barack Obama could not have been more striking. In the U.S., the prize winner briefly expressed how humbled he was, followed by a short, highly partisan debate, which was as much about the about award as about the awardee; then everyone's attention quickly moved on to other issues. In Europe, the public approval and interest was immediate, and overwhelming. The Nobel for Obama was the top story in all the news outlets for days, and rare was the public figure who did not feel compelled to congratulate or comment. All of Europe, it seemed, was in a flutter. So what does all this excitement tell us about the European side of the transatlantic relationship? First and foremost, this intense attention shows how much Europe remains captivated by the new U.S. president, regardless of his achievements after a mere nine months in office. For some "Obamadulators," the fact that he is not George W. Bush is enough in itself to merit the Nobel Prize. Those with a more measured appreciation of the president's actions in office cite his speeches in Prague and Cairo, his respect for multilateral institutions, his willingness to reach out even to America's most intransigent opponents, his courage in tackling numerous global problems at the same time, and the dignity and sobriety of his style. But the reactions in Europe also illustrate a shift in the relationship that goes far beyond the personal. Obama's most significant (and least-observed) achievement is that he has fundamentally changed the attitude of many Europeans to the United States. For them, his election alone illustrates America's ability to re-invent itself, a capacity seemingly lacking in most European countries. Under Obama's leadership, support among Europeans for U.S. leadership in global affairs has grown from one-third to nearly 50 percent, according to a recent Transatlantic Trends survey. In this light, Europe's approval of the Nobel Prize for Obama is also an implicit acknowledgement of how much Europe needs the U.S. on the world stage. But reactions to the award were by no means unanimously positive across Europe. In the East, reactions were much slower and often also more dismissive, from Lech Walesa's "Too soon!" or the "What For?" of the Slovak daily SME. This reflects a more general caution among Eastern Europeans toward Obama, aggravated perhaps by the impression that America is withdrawing from engagement in this part of Europe. And while the Western Europeans were faster to react and more enthusiastic (in keeping with approval ratings of well over 80%), the general tone in the debate remained very balanced between approval and criticism. For the more sober voices, the Nobel Prize is an encouragement and an expression of hope that Obama will be able to stay his course and succeed; some also expressed concern that the prize had been awarded too early, and would prove a burden. And for the skeptics -- they do exist -- the award is a reminder to the new U.S. president that he must begin to deliver on his many promises. All this possibly heralds a certain degree of realism slowly making its way into European opinion on Obama. Even the German media, where the Nobel for Obama was given the most space, could not help but warn of exaggerated expectations. Whether "Still a Dream" (Die Zeit), "Good Hope Award" (Säddeutsche Zeitung), or "Burden, rather than Honor" (Spiegel), there is a growing realization that Obama's full agenda, at home and abroad, will necessarily also bring disappointments, and disagreements. What this also means is that a window of opportunity may be closing for Obama in Europe. As the once-massive advance credit Obama had received by European publics wanes, policymakers here will find it harder to convince their publics of the need for unpopular decisions demanded by the U.S. president of his allies in Europe €“ as we know he will. Europeans have in fact been quick to point out all the pressing international issues on which Obama has yet to achieve tangible results: overcoming the global economic crisis and building a new international financial architecture, tackling the nuclear threats emanating from Iran and North Korea, the war in Afghanistan, climate change, Guantanamo, the Middle East conflict, Russia's renewed assertiveness. But the real question here €“ to paraphrase a famous quote €“ is not what Obama has done for the Nobel Peace Prize; it is what Europe can do for Obama to help him live up to this award. Suffice it to say that, as yet, not many answers to this question have been forthcoming from Europe. But Europe can, and should be, more forthcoming on the highly symbolical issue of Guantanamo. Obama will need additional resources €“ troops, police, political leverage, development expertise, and funds €“ in Afghanistan, and Europe should be able to provide these. A nuclear-free world may be a long shot €“ but Europeans (and not just the nuclear powers Britain and France) can provide diplomatic support, and decades of arms control negotiating experience. European ties with Russia could, if appropriately coordinated, aid Obama's outreach to the Kremlin. These and other actions on the part of Europe might give the president a fighting chance to succeed and justify his Nobel Peace Prize. In that sense, the award comes with a price tag. For us Europeans as much as for Barack Obama.
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