Obama and Europe

The following article was published in the December issue of Progress magazine.

Reality Check
An Obama presidency may not prove quite the dream that Europeans hope for

28 November 2008

Europeans have the US president of their dreams. Barack Obama was Europe’s candidate of choice. Europe expects the new Democratic administration to deliver a made-in-Europe world policy. With one exception. The Kremlin’s welcome for Obama was chilling. Moscow announced it would install short-range nuclear missiles aimed at EU member states in eastern Europe. The missiles will be placed in K√∂nigsberg, now called Kalingrad after Russia annexed Kant’s university town in 1945. Two hundred years ago, Kant wrote his theory of Perpetual Peace, a book today’s foreign policymakers would do well to reread. Today, Kant’s Konigsberg of peace is designed to become the Kremlin’s Kalingrad of short-range Iskander missiles threatening Poland, German coastal cities, the Baltic states and parts of Scandanavia. Russian nationalists like prime minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev apart, European socialists and liberals united with conservatives and Christian democrats in rejoicing at Obama’s victory. The Bush-Cheney-Greenspan axis of reactionary economic incompetence and foreign adventurism had been defeated, at last. In this foam-filled warm bath of self-satisfaction no one has asked whether Europe has got anything wrong in the last eight years. No one has asked if the new Senate and Congress will be more amenable to America becoming multilateralist, which in plain language means doing what other countries want, not what American lawmakers or the president believe America needs. President-elect Obama has made a campaign theme his confidence that he can get Europeans to share more of the burden in Afghanistan. Wish him well as he tries to persuade German chancellor Angela Merkel – or her social democratic rival in next year’s German elections, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – that more German soldiers should be sent to fight and die in faraway Afghanistan. Vice president-elect Biden visited Tbilisi to show solidarity with the people of Georgia after Russia poured armoured divisions, planes and even a fleet to pound Georgia. Russian parliamentarians have voted to dismember Georgia and, in effect, annexe part of the territory of a UN member state. Europe’s response has been to launch new talks with Moscow on an agreement on partnership and cooperation as if the Kremlin’s Sudetenland-like occupation of Georgian territory was of little consequence. How will Obama handle the newly aggressive Russia especially as windfall oil wealth goes down and Putin steps up the nationalist rhetoric?If Franklin Roosevelt had to fix the US economy in 1930 (and still only managed to bring US unemployment down to 18 per cent in 1939 – it was the second world war that really set American growth and jobs on an ever-upward trend), Obama has to find a way out of today’s collapse of consumption, confidence and even a belief in capitalism itself. Europeans are enjoying the idea of the return of the state – but since when did cautious, safety-first state bureaucrats go in for the kind of creative, new-product market economy that America and the world needs?France and Germany have been lathering themselves with criticisms of the US economic model. But what happens when Americans stop buying Louis Vuiton and bottles of Bordeaux, let alone BMWs and Mercedes? Europe will discover that the one thing worse than Americans buying too much on credit is Americans not buying anything at all. Germans need to stop saving and start spending. And, as in China, Germans need to be told that trade is two-way. If you want to export, you have to import.The EU has written a joint letter to Washington on managing the world economy but from Ireland to government-owned regional banks in Germany, the Europeans have been just as guilty of trading financial products which had no material reality while banking secrecy laws in EU member states like Luxembourg and Austria, as well Switzerland and Lichtenstein and Britain’s offshore tax havens, have shielded dubious transactions from tax and regulatory authorities. Europe still will not give up its seats at the IMF or World Bank to allow China and the emerging powers of Asian-Pacific capitalism to have a say. Each EU leader will be clamouring to be the first to see Obama. Far from speaking with one voice on foreign policy issues ranging from Kosovo to Turkey, Europe’s national egos will be on display more than a European unity and willingness to share burdens with America. Obama might well be tempted to paraphrase Kennedy and tell his new fans in Europe: ‘Ask not what America can do for you, ask rather what Europe can do for America.’By contrast, instead of taking steps on its own to shape a united EU that is willing to invest in security, extend the euro to Britain and lower the protectionist barriers that distort the single market, Europe has invested all of its hopes for a happy tomorrow in Obama. But in the excitement of waiting for the end of the Bush-Cheney years, which Europe blamed for all the woes of the world, few have examined the small print of his ideology.He has made clear that America would never take orders from the United Nations, yet the Europeans said they wanted more multilateral global decisionmaking. He has said Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel, while Europeans have long ago awarded half of Jerusalem to the Palestinians as capital of their putative state. Obama has said America might have to bomb Pakistan in order to chase out Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda from their hiding holes on the northwest frontier. To win US labour support Obama has questioned free trade, the neoprotectionism that if enacted would cripple European exports. And while Obama had the good fortune not to be a member of Congress when the votes on Iraq in 2003 took place, he seems enthusiastic nonetheless about increasing the troop presence in Afghanistan, despite increasing European pessimism that any victory is possible.For the time being, the optimism of the will, the sheer excitement at seeing an articulate, thoughtful, sensitive post-white American enter the White House is overwhelming the pessimism of the intelligence, the sense that deeply intractable policy questions about economics, the environment and geopolitical relations and interventions have yet to be adequately asked, let alone answered. Obama can do much to reinvigorate America’s presence overseas by appointing professional diplomats in place of billionaire ambassadors. He might suggest to the EU the creation of a Global Endowment for Democracy to support fair elections, freedom of expression, women’s rights and social justice in the world.There are no perfect partners but America’s refusal to offer diplomatic recognition to Iran, or even to North Korea, achieves little. Obama’s America must be present in every corner of the world, making friends and influencing people but also taking on and defeating the enemies of freedom.Europe is America’s partner and foil in this new era of world history. Both Europeans and a Democrat-controlled US should enjoy the warmth and hope that now exists. But expectations need managing and, after the early euphoria, both Washington and Europe need to focus on what can reunite the Euroatlantic community instead of the divisions that have caused so much damage so far this century.