October 30, 2008 | Commentary on Europe
Obama May Not be Bush, but He Won't be What Europe Expects
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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