Obama May Not be Bush, but He Won't be What Europe Expects


Obama May Not be Bush, but He Won't be What Europe Expects

Oct 30th, 2008 4 min read
Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations

Ted Bromund studies Anglo-American relations, U.S. relations with Europe and the EU, and the U.S.’s leadership role in the world.
In the presidential contest, Americans are leaning towards Barack Obama, but they remain divided. John McCain is the underdog - though as Churchill once remarked, every dog has his day, and some days last longer than others.

There are few such divisions in Europe: it wants Obama to win. Not everyone agrees, but almost. In September, a BBC poll - fair and balanced, undoubtedly - found that France, Germany, Britain, and Italy were among the most optimistic that an Obama presidency would improve their relations with the US.

Obama's advisers share that hope. From their point of view - and it's impossible to disagree with this - divisions in Nato are bad news. It's easy to overlook the fact that George Bush's administration has co-operated closely - if not always effectively - with Europe on Iran, Sudan, and in Nato for the past four years. On the public level, the belief in the split remains.

For this, American liberals have a simple explanation: it's Bush's fault. As Bill Clinton put it at the Democratic convention: "People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power."
So George Bush, that supposedly reckless unilateralist, is responsible for the American bad example, justly abhorred around the world. If only he'd been nicer, we'd all get along.

As history, this is fatuous: American power has been plenty impressive, as the Germans, among others, would admit. And the day will come when Bush is recognised as alternating between multilateralism and unilateralism, as Clinton did. But this theme has a powerful appeal to liberals, because it places the blame, ultimately, on an America that does not try hard enough to get along with the rest of the world. Its vision is simple and self-centred: it's all about us.

It's good partisan stuff to point at Bush. But by claiming a kindler, gentler, multilateral America is the solution, liberals are setting an Obama administration up for a fall in Europe.

It is easy to imagine that, with Obama in charge, a lot of minor annoyances in the US-Europe relationship will be smoothed over. Even that isn't true. Trade was a source of continual conflict between the US and Europe in the 1990s. The new Congress, dominated by Democrats, will be protectionist, which is not in the European interest. Europe won't be shy about letting the US know this.

And while Obama's advisers make soothing noises about climate change, they'll be dealing with a Europe that is going from green to yellow. When the Italian Environment Minister asks, as he did last week, if it makes "sense to ask companies for such a large sacrifice, and risk hitting citizens' pockets at such a delicate moment, all for environmental policy whose efficacy is questionable?", he's speaking for a lot of Americans on both sides of the aisle.

But this is small beer. The big issues are war and peace. If the US and Europe agree on these, nothing else matters. If they disagree, nothing else matters. And with Iraq fading from the headlines, only one war counts in US-European relations: Afghanistan.

Obama wants to escalate, by "two to three additional brigades", and pursue limited strikes against al-Qaida safe havens in Pakistan, especially if Pakistan itself is unwilling to act. That's an approach that, while lacking in vital detail, has a lot to recommend it.

But it doesn't stand on its own. As Susan Rice, Obama's foreign policy adviser, put it in July: "We in the United States will have to do our part; but Europe will have to do its part too. There can be no free riders if this is going to be an effective partnership."

So an Obama administration will demand that Europe stop cowering in the background, send more troops to Afghanistan, step into the front lines, and start taking and inflicting casualties. As Rice said: "We in the US as well as Nato need to do more."

That's entirely true. But it begs the question: why isn't Nato doing more now? Rice's answer was revealing: Europeans don't like Bush, so they used him as an excuse not to be helpful. An Obama administration will eliminate the excuse.

And then the argument comes off the rails. As difficult as this is for liberals to grasp, many Europeans are opposed to that war, not because of Bush, but because it's a war. Bush is an excuse, but an excuse is not the same thing as a reason.

The reason Europeans do not want to fight in Afghanistan is because they do not want to fight, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. An Obama administration will enter office convinced, in a self-centered way, that Europe will be helpful because Bush is gone. It will find that Europeans have ideas of their own, and that a lot of these ideas aren't compatible with American ones. Then the disillusionment will set in.

First, the administration will ask. Then, hearing no, it will lecture. Then it will beg. Then, after six months, administration sources will admit that they'd underrated the European unwillingness to be serious, and will acknowledge that the US will have to act with the broadest "coalition of the willing" it can gather.

But it takes two to be disillusioned. Europeans are going to find out that a President Obama will indeed be President of the United States. By virtue of his position he will be compelled - as Clinton was - to use force when American interests are threatened.

Rice calls for US-European co-operation on "a strong and effective approach to Iran," but this co-operation has been ongoing for years. It's the Europeans who are torn between stopping Iran and trading with it: this year alone, German trade with Iran is up 14 per cent, and close ties are backed by firms like Siemens and BASF.

If the shock on the American side will come when the Europeans refuse to act, the shock on the European side will come when the Americans do act. The action may be late, but absent a fundamental change in the Iranian regime, it will eventually come. And then the sense of betrayal will set in across Europe: we thought Obama was different, the refrain will be, but look what he's done in Iran.

Exaggerated expectations lead to exaggerated disappointments when they're not fulfilled. And right now, the expectations of an Obama presidency are exaggerated everywhere.

If elected, Obama will confront the same problem in US-European relations that bedeviled Bush, and Clinton: as long as Europe is dominated by the get-along, go-along diplomacy and politics of the welfare state, it will resent any American president who refuses to go along. And those differences of opinion will only be exacerbated by the self-congratulatory liberal belief that they are all the fault of one man.

Ted Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Yorkshire Post