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It's been 100 days, but will it last?
LONDON — They loved him when he ran, they loved him when he won, they loved him when he sped across their continent in a blitzkrieg of charm and earnestness in early April, but do they love him still? Of course they do.
According to Der Spiegel, Germany's most popular newsweekly, 82 percent of Germans believe President Barack Obama will have a positive impact on world affairs. Three-quarters of those polled would like to have Obama as their chancellor. Failing that, a similar number said they would like to have a German who was just like him in charge.
It is a good bet that if pollsters asked a similar question in any country in Europe they would get a similar number. Perhaps in France, where President Nicholas Sarkozy's habit of shooting off his mouth is losing him popularity by the month, the number would be higher.
Sarkozy is still trying to live down recent reports that at a lunch with French parliamentarians after Obama's recent visit he put the American down as having "a subtle mind, very clever and very charismatic" but "not always up to standard on decision-making and efficiency."
In many ways this initial burst of love and admiration is just a return to normal, said James Mosher, an associate professor at Ohio University, who is currently a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.
"In their initial contacts with Europe, American presidents have always spoken of working together and have been rewarded with a honeymoon period," Mosher said. "George Bush represented a real break with the past with his aggressive, we will go it alone stance. Much of the intense feeling for Obama is relief that the old way of consultation is coming back."
But beyond the good will Obama has received by simply returning to the status quo and being a charming, charismatic person, there are specific actions the president has taken in the last three months that indicate an understanding of European concerns in the deepest sense. He has received positive notice for them.
First, at the NATO summit, he was credited with brokering a deal that allowed Denmark's Anders Fogh Rasmussen to be named secretary-general of the alliance. The Turkish government had loudly objected to the appointment. As the only Muslim nation in the alliance, Turkey was sensitive about a Dane taking over the reins of NATO. It cannot be underestimated how much anger Danish political cartoons published in 2005 mocking the prophet Mohammed continue to have in the Muslim world. Obama's personal intervention with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was the decisive bit of diplomacy in what otherwise would have been a very difficult moment for NATO.
Second was Obama's surprise announcement that he was asking Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to open negotiations on reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles. It cannot be overstated how much concern about being in the middle of a nuclear throwdown between the United States and Russia adversely affected attitudes in western Europe towards America, particularly during the Reagan presidency. The nuclear issue has real political impact, particularly in Germany.
Third, and most important, was shutting down Guantanamo and then releasing the "torture" memos. Again, there are no adequate words to express the damage that reports about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and CIA rendition flights to black sites where people were tortured has had on America's image in Europe. It has been much, much worse than even Vietnam for America's standing on the continent. Recent events have gone a long way to convincing Europeans that Obama is determined to restore the America many used to love.
So that was the easy part ... now what?
Josef Braml of the German Council on Foreign Relations says that NATO still has the potential to bring the love affair, if not to an end, back to earth. "The U.S. is pursuing a vision of NATO as a more globalized alliance. Germans are concerned this might bring it into competition with the U.N." There is another problem waiting for the president in the failure of European countries so far to develop their own policies on Pakistan. From a European perspective, there is a danger the United States will get too far ahead of its NATO allies in bringing military and diplomatic pressure on the Pakistani government. Based on past performance, they may well balk when asked to back policies they had no say in formulating.
Another veteran observer of the trans-Atlantic relationship, Phillipe Moreau Defarge of the French Institute for Foreign Affairs, warns: "The problem with this Obama party is it means the day after can be very difficult." Moreau Defarge believes the end of the first phase of the Europe-Obama relationship is at hand. "Now he must deliver. The public will want to see results particularly on the economy, his own economy and the world economy," Moreau Defarge said. The Frenchman also points to the Middle East as the place Europeans want to see Obama deliver positive change.
Those sentiments were echoed in an editorial in Bild, Germany's largest selling newspaper, "All in all, Obama’s first 100 days are no cause for a celebration. The problems are simply too big. The President even said himself: 'The first 100 days are important. However, to see real changes, we will need 1,000 days.'"
It will be interesting to see how strong the love is in the autumn of 2011.
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