Where does Obama stand on Europe?

This article was published in Newsweek
Looking for Leadership
Europe fears Obama's ignoring it.

Published 28 August 2009
From the magazine issue dated 7 September 2009
A little over a year ago, 200,000 Germans crowded around the Victory Column just down from Berlin's Brandenburg Gate to listen rapturously to a speech by Barack Obama. That was candidate Obama. Today it's less clear that President Obama would get the same turnout—in large part since, seven months into his tenure, no one here knows what his Europe policy is.
All his predecessors, whether Democratic or Republican, defined themselves against Europe. The Truman doctrine endorsed a U.S. defense of the continent against communism. JFK came to the Berlin Wall to declare himself a Berliner. Ronald Reagan came to the same place and told the Kremlin to "tear down that wall." Jimmy Carter set up the G7 with Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt. George H.W. Bush, after initial hesitation, supported the concept of "Europe whole and free." Bill Clinton was an honorary European social democrat, and kept Europe on Valium with warm words made stronger by his alliance with a fellow modernizer, the Europhile Tony Blair. Even George W. Bush spoke in 2001 in favor of European integration and the euro.
But Obama? Europeans still adore him as the un-Bush. But no one can work out what he wants from or for Europe. Hillary Clinton tours Africa and Asia and hams it up with her Russian opposite number, Sergey Lavrov, at the United Nations. George Mitchell is sent to the Middle East to push for peace. Joe Biden turns up in Georgia and Ukraine mixing words of support with caution for those nations. But Obama has no Mr. or Ms. Europe. He dutifully came to the G20 meeting in London but is now signaling that the 30-year era of the G7 and G8 is over. Obama's banking-bailout policies have been made in and for the U.S. with little real coordination with Europe, and China and India now seem more important to his economic policies than London or Berlin.
Without clear U.S. leadership, Europe and its leaders are floundering. On climate change and universal health care, Obama talks the talk, but Europe wants action. Does he see Russia as a menace after its invasion of Georgia, its bullying of Ukraine, its attacks on the OSCE, and Vladimir Putin's steady erosion of human rights and the rule of law? Or does he see Russia as a partner and ally for whom a blind eye is needed when the Kremlin goes off the rails? Nobody knows. Or take Muammar Kaddafi. Europeans thought the U.S. wanted to normalize relations with the Libyan leader and shift Libya away from the anti-Western camp. French President Nicolas Sarkozy allowed Kaddafi to pitch his tent in Paris, while Italy's Silvio Berlusconi cannot find enough red carpets to roll out for the dictator. Britain released a man to Libya convicted of the Lockerbie bombings. But suddenly Washington is lambasting the soft-soaping of Kaddafi as it recognizes the anger over any move that appears to reward his longstanding support for terrorism.
The one policy Obama is firm on is his desire to see the U.S. and NATO allies emerge successfully from the conflict in Afghanistan. But he now faces the liberal FDP in Germany calling for the withdrawal of German troops as it appeals for votes in September's elections. In Britain, opinion polls show majority support for bringing British soldiers home. Eager to garner these votes, the opposition Conservative Party has said it wants a timetable for handing things over to the Afghan Army and bringing U.K. soldiers home.
Part of the concern about Obama lies in the fact that he is the first U.S. president in generations to have no firm ties to Europe. Previous American presidents passed around invitations to Camp David or Crawford. Eisenhower played golf in England, and Kennedy sent Jacqueline to Paris to charm de Gaulle. Nixon and Ford had the help of the European-American Henry Kissinger, and Carter had the Pole Zbigniew Brzezinski to advise. Bill Clinton was a Rhodes scholar who knew European political history better than most of Europe's leaders. Obama shakes hands with all in the Oval Office, but the personal stroking of European leaders is not taking place.
In July, all the retired Eastern European presidents and prime ministers—liberals, conservatives, and social democrats—joined to write an open letter to Obama, questioning his commitment to what they called the "Euro-Atlantic community." They argued that their generation had grown up admiring what U.S. presidents said and did to support European democracy and Euro-Atlantic values and ideals. The letter was polite, but the thrust was clear: Obama must not abandon a tradition that began with Truman and helped bring peace, prosperity, freedom, and democracy to the European continent.
Obama still has huge reserves of admirers in Europe, but time is running out, as Europeans simply do not know what he expects of the old continent. For the first time since 1945 there is a vacuum of U.S. leadership for the ruling elites in Europe. And without American nudging, does Europe know where it wants or needs to go?