President Barack Obama may have to battle an intransigent Republican Party for congressional approval of his domestic policies during his second term, but his more-or-less free hand in foreign policy enables him to help establish his legacy through America’s actions abroad.
If his first administration focused on repairing the damage George W. Bush’s eight years as president wreaked on America’s image, his second one should concentrate on reaffirming US leadership in the world.
He should begin by shoring up Washington’s relationship with its closest ally and largest trading partner: Europe. There’s much work to do on both sides of the Atlantic.
Last summer, some began pronouncing the relationship all-but dead. Among them, Mark Leonard — director of the influential European Council on Foreign Affairs — wrote that although “Obama successfully healed the transatlantic rift, he may also be the American president who presided over the end of the West as a political community.”
Tough words. Eight out of ten Europeans may have supported Obama’s re-election, but under Obama’s leadership, the western alliance “has never loomed smaller in the imagination of policymakers of both sides of the Atlantic.”
Leonard allocates most of the blame to a White House that’s no longer interested in Europeans other than as partners for its own agenda. “It was not until the euro zone looked like it might collapse — threatening to bring down the global economy and with it Obama’s chances of reelection — that the president became truly interested in Europe.”
Europeans, for their part, have “never cared less” about what Washington thinks. Angela Merkel has refused to heed Obama’s advice about the dangers of austerity, while the end of the Cold War means European countries no longer look to America for protection.
Leonard blames other factors: aloof Obama’s failure to establish personal relationships with European leaders, even his Asia-centric biography that supposedly deflects attention from Europe. Larger forces are also blamed. If the United States has been the “sheriff” of a European-inspired liberal order and the EU its “constitutional court,” now globalization is enabling Brazil, China and other emerging countries to challenge their influence by translating their economic power into political clout on the world stage.
However, while there’s no question the transatlantic relationship is under stress, now is hardly the first time crises of one sort or another — such as the 1990s failure in Bosnia — have raised existential questions about the United States and Europe since the end of the Cold War set off an ongoing realignment of the balance of western power.
George W. Bush inflicted the greatest recent damage to ties with Europe by embarking on a ruinous foreign policy that included the invention of a pretext to launch an unnecessary war in Iraq, then warning our closest allies they were either with us or against us.
That gave credence to Vladimir Putin’s rabid anti-Americanism, fodder for Jacques Chirac’s grandiose posturing and created crises in the UK — thanks to Tony Blair’s publicly unquestioning signing-on — that are still playing out in British politics. Obama did much to salve the wounds with his conciliatory words and nuanced actions, such as allowing Britain and France to become the public face of the effort to bomb Libya.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how little talk there is about Europe and the United States. But Obama’s aloofness has something to do with his preoccupation with troubles at home, including the financial crisis and battling Congress, than a turning away from Europe — notwithstanding the rhetorical “pivot to Asia.”
Another reason is that Europe isn’t seen as a threat, like China.
It’s undeniable that euro crisis has done much to show the limits of American influence in Europe, especially Germany, Europe’s wealthiest country. But that doesn’t mean the relationship is over.
Instead it offers an opportunity to strengthen ties by reaffirming shared values.
After an era in which political leanings did little to influence transatlantic ties—think Blair’s championing of Bush’s war — the euro crisis has helped crystallize the similarities between the Democrats and Europe’s leftists.
It’s no accident that France’s Francois Hollande gave Obama’s re-election the loudest approval in Europe. The Socialist leader who joked about wanting to ruin Mitt Romney’s candidacy by endorsing him hailed Obama’s victory as a "clear choice for an open, united America that is totally engaged on the international scene.”
Hollande is leading the public opposition to Europe’s German-enforced austerity, aided by Italy’s Mario Monti, who has pushed back against Merkel behind the scenes.
Washington’s continued support for them would work in the interests of Europe and America by increasing the pressure to ease off austerity. Angela Merkel, who is facing elections next year, will be tempted to resist growing calls from European leaders to promote growth. But recent figures from Greece show the country’s three waves of it have only made debt grow, as cuts to wages and services have helped the rise of extremist groups and torn at society’s fabric by boosting unemployment and poverty and otherwise tearing the social safety net.
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A neutral first step toward boosting Washington’s role in Europe should be the agreement of a US-EU trade deal. The EU’s trade commissioner this week said Obama’s re-election gave new impetus for talks to start early next year. The $700 billion trade between the two sides already makes up almost a third of global commerce. Weakening growth is now encouraging Washington and Brussels to seek to reverse the trend by considering dropping tax and regulation barriers.
Signing a deal would symbolize Washington’s recommitment to its European ties, and should accompany joint efforts to tackle some of the most pressing mutual foreign policy challenges, such as resolving the conflict in Syria. That would help end talk that America’s relationship with a continent that shares its values and many of its aims is no longer relevant to either side.