Obama's European Trip and Transatlantic (In)compatibility
Much of the commentary on the recent trip by Senator Barack Obama to Europe has--understandably--focused on what his trip means for U.S. presidential politics. But one can also ask about what it tells us about future transatlantic relations. It is of course eye-opening and refreshing to see 200,000 Germans demonstrating in favor of an American leader as opposed to against one. Apart from producing some remarkable TV footage, what does this trip tell us about the prospects of moving beyond the estrangement and transatlantic hostility of recent years under a new U.S. president, regardless of who it is? We know that the Bush years have been a uniquely difficult phase in transatlantic relations.
GMF's own Transatlantic Trends public opinion polls have shown the dramatic drop in European public support for U.S. leadership and the cooling in feelings toward the United States on multiple fronts. That collapse started early, accelerated around the Iraq war and has now bottomed out. Bush's charm offensive during his second term notwithstanding, European public opinion has essentially not budged one iota over the last four years. For several years now, the transatlantic community has been debating what went wrong and why. Was this breakup the result of bad strategic choices and personalities--or the product of growing structural differences in values, power, and strategic culture? Was the role of individuals--be they President Bush or former French President Chirac or former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder--central or marginal? This is not just an academic or historical issue. How one interprets the past touches on the issue of whether the United States and Europe can come back together or whether we are going our separate ways strategically. On one side of the debate are those who argue that it is time to stop pretending that Americans and Europeans will ever again be the kind of close strategic partners that we were in the past. It was Bob Kagan who first argued that the Cold War had masked the gulf between an American martial foreign policy tradition dating back to our founding fathers and a post-modern Europe that eschewed the use of military power and force after centuries of bloody conflict. After the Cold War, so Kagan argued, it was natural that such differences had emerged as each side of the Atlantic reverted back to their own strategic inclinations. While Bush may have accelerated that process, he was not the cause and thus his stepping down from the stage will not, in all likelihood, change these underlying differences. That thesis has evoked passionate agreement and opposition on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other side of the debate are those--including myself--who argue that the relationship can be put back together again.
While I admire Kagan's intellect and consider him a friend, I have never been convinced of the view that there are some new tectonic plates driving the United States and Europe apart today and rendering us strategically incompatible. Instead, I have often felt that our differences today are often no greater than they were during the Cold War and that this breakup was largely the result of bad policy. And what bad policy had created good policy can presumably reverse and repair. Looking at Transatlantic Trends data, I conclude that there are no fundamental differences in how Americans and Europeans see future threats. Obviously Americans and Europeans have different impulses on how to address these challenges, especially when it comes to the use of force. But what is new about that? It did not prevent us from winning the Cold War. Going to war is or should be a small part of diplomacy and what transatlantic cooperation is all about. Rebuilding this relationship will certainly not be easy, but arguably there is no shortage of issues and challenges where such cooperation is needed. The fact that the United States and Europe are destined to constitute a shrinking percentage of the world population and political and economic strength in the future is, if anything, an argument to deepen our relations. A multipolar world requires more--not less--transatlantic cooperation. Proponents of the first school tend to believe that transatlantic relations are unlikely to improve dramatically under the next President--irrespective of who wins the U.S. election. We can do a better job in managing this relationship, but the differences in world view and instincts are real and won't be overcome. They consider the heyday of transatlantic cooperation to basically be over. The second school tends to believe that there is a chance for a real comeback or renaissance under the next President. They also believe in the potential for a real bounce or positive uptick in relations and in European public attitudes toward the United States. A great deal of ink has been spilled--and red wine and single malt scotch poured--in arguing over these issues in recent years.
As someone who has lived in Europe since President Bush's re-election, I have felt and seen the evidence marshalled to support both viewpoints. I have always tended to be more in the second school than the first. In the last few years, I have felt that Europeans had become increasingly uncomfortable with their bad relationship with the United States, that they understand the need to work with the United States, and that there was a growing yearning for better relations with Washington. If the unilateralist moment is over in Washington, the counterweight movement is also dead in Europe. In my view, many European leaders were looking for an excuse or reason to jettison that anti-Americanism of past year and reposition themselves closer to the United States There is a new hunger emerging for a better relationship with Washington, as reflected in the extraordinary level interest in the current U.S. presidential campaign. But I have also always felt the need to be careful in differentiating between analysis and wishful thinking. In our heart of hearts, we have all known that the real experiment and test of these different views will take place when the next President takes office and we see what happens. This is where the trip of Senator Obama to Europe comes in. For the proponents of the bounce theory, it offers tantalizing evidence that Europeans are eager for a different relationship with the United States and that Obama's candidacy might give them that opportunity to come back to Mother America. Many commentators, especially in Germany, have already declared the end of anti-Americanism there. Watching the press conference between Senator Obama and President Sarkozy, one could not help but be struck by the enthusiasm for a new beginning and different relationship that the French President conveyed. But before we make this political and analytical jump, however, let's go back to that crowd of 200,000-plus Germans at his speech before the Victory Column and ask ourselves a few questions. It is clear that Senator Obama has fueled Europe's political curiosity and imagination about America in a way that seemed inconceivable a few years ago. But I also suspect that in that crowd--and across Europe--there are two very different kinds of Obama supporters.
One is essentially the estranged Atlanticist, the former friend of the United States whom Bush lost and who is open and to, and in some cases even eager to, come back under a new and different U.S. president. This is also someone who is willing to actually support his or her government doing things together with the United States down the road. These are the Germans who, in principle, would be willing to do more with the United States in a reframed relationship, including on the tough challenges like Afghanistan, Iran, or Russia. But I also suspect there was also a second kind of Obama supporter at that rally who is embracing the Senator as the anti-Bush, who hopes for or sees in Obama some ideological compatibility but who basically remains skeptical or hostile to the United States on many policy issues. These are the Obama supporters who may support him now but might prove unwilling to do the things a potential Obama administration might ask of Europe down the road. How many of the former and latter there were in attendance at the Victory Column? I do not know. But it is an important question. I for one look forward to GMF's release of this year's Transatlantic Trends survey in early September, as it will also provide another data point in terms of European and American attitudes. So in the grand debate over strategic compatibility or incompatibility, and whether there can be a positive bounce in U.S.-European relations under the next president, I see this trip as scoring a point for the advocates of the compatibility thesis. But this debate is far from over. Let's realize that what we saw was an opening, and the potential for positive change in relations across the Atlantic. There remains a lot of hard work to be done if we want to turn this into reality.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.