April 1, 2009

April 1, 2009 | Commentary on Europe

Obama's Honeymoon with Europe: Will It Survive the Week?

With "tea party" protests drawing thousands, and even Democratic lawmakers questioning the scope of his unprecedented spending proposals, President Obama has now entered a rocky patch here at home. But if he thinks it's getting tough here, just wait till he gets to Europe next week.

The president's crisis management approach is not getting rave reviews across the pond. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek recently labeled Obama's economic recovery plan "a way to hell" that threatens to "undermine the stability of the global financial market." Topolanek's views carry a lot of weight in Europe at this moment - his country assumed the European Union presidency in January. Obama's criticism of the EU's 400-billion Euro stimulusspending plan as far too timid has ruffled many a feather among the 27-nation bloc.

Before wading into the G-20 summit Wednesday, Obama will visit Queen Elizabeth II and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Normally, an American president could count on a warm welcome from the British. But Obama may find London unseasonably chilly, thanks to a series of diplomatic gaffes committed in the early weeks of his presidency.

The president kicked off a public relations disaster by unceremoniously returning a bust of Winston Churchill, sent to the Oval Office in the aftermath of 9/11 as a gesture of solidarity. It went downhill from there. Prime Minister Brown, the first European leader to visit the new president, endured a humiliating reception at the White House. He was denied the usual joint press conference and official dinner, and was sent home with a demeaning gift: 25 DVDs, ranging from Psycho to The Wizard of Oz, which are unplayable in Britain. Mr. Brown's gift to the President was, on the other hand, quite thoughtful: a pen holder carved from the timbers of the anti-slave ship HMS Gannet and intended to rest on the Oval Office desk made from its sister ship, the HMS Resolute..

The State Department official who helped organize the meeting then made matters worse. "There's nothing special about Britain," the official told Britain's Sunday Telegraph. "You're just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn't expect special treatment."

All of this suggests an administration that is hugely self-absorbed, obsessed with domestic affairs at the expense of world leadership, with an apparent disregard for maintaining decades-long friendships and enduring alliances. It is a short-sighted approach that will undercut American influence and standing on the world stage, alienate friend and allies, and ultimately leave the United States a weaker and more isolated power.

President Obama must work to reassure his British hosts that the U.S. remains committed to an Anglo-American alliance that has long insured the security of the free world. That means acting like a statesman and paying tribute to the sacrifice of nearly 9,000 British troops who are fighting and dying alongside American soldiers in Afghanistan while most of the rest of Europe sits on the sidelines.

That would set the proper tone as Obama faces his first real test as a world leader, at the April 2 G-20 summit. There he'll encounter some of Europe's cagiest politicians and several proposals that threaten U.S. national sovereignty and business interests.

Paris and Berlin have been vocal in urging the creation of a supra-national agency to regulate financial activity. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel want the summiteers to work toward an EU-led global financial "architecture" that would "culminate in the establishment of a world governance structure."

President Obama's carefully worded comments on this pernicious suggestion indicate he realizes the dangers here. It would be madness to cede control of U.S. financial policy to Brussels-based regulators. The president must also reject the spectre of protectionism, while calling on the world's leading economies to advance free trade and free markets as the best weapons to combat the global downturn.

All in all, the president can expect to encounter heavy-going in London. And it won't get any easier when he moves on to the NATO summit in Strasbourg and Kehl, as well as a meeting with EU leaders in Prague.

Obama has declared the war in Afghanistan to be America's top foreign policy priority. If so, he'll need to spur continental European members of the alliance to finally start pulling their weight in combat operations against the Taliban. The president should make it clear that a two-tier alliance, in which the English-speaking countries of America, Britain, and Canada bear an overwhelming proportion of the combat burden, is simply unacceptable. The three "Anglosphere" countries currently account for 85 percent of the casualties inflicted by the Taliban. Meanwhile major European partners such as Germany cower behind dozens of caveats aimed at keeping their soldiers out of harm's way.

He'll also need to rally NATO members to reaffirm support for ultimately extending membership to Georgia and Ukraine. That would send Moscow a loud and clear message that its attempts to intimidate the alliance cannot succeed. The president must also declare that the Russians have no veto over NATO-endorsed proposals for a Third Site missile defense system to be established in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The global economy has changed dramatically since candidate Obama's 2008 European tour. He is not likely to encounter the swooning adulation that characterized that trip. This tour is all about high-level diplomacy, geo-politics and advancing American interests. He must project American strength and leadership in an increasingly dangerous world that will require major sacrifices by America's European allies as well. It won't be easy. But governing never is.

Nile Gardiner is Director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

About the Author

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Europe

First Appeared in abbreviated form in the April 1, 2009, New York Post