Stephen M. Walt

Reports of a transatlantic rift have been greatly exaggerated

Reports of a transatlantic rift have been greatly exaggerated

European officials are reportedly "miffed" that President Obama isn’t going to attend an EU summit in Spain this May. The Times says that the summit may be postponed, and England’s Guardian refers to a "diplomatic row," says the summit might be canceled entirely, and quotes one unnamed envoy saying "if there is no Obama, there is no summit." By contrast, the Financial Times takes a more measured view. Instead of a headline emphasizing a riff, spat or snub, the FT headline says "EU Leaders Play Down Obama Decision on Summit," and the story quotes EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton describing U.S.-EU relations as "warm" and "good" and refusing to turn this into a big diplomatic incident.

I see the whole thing as a positive development all around. EU leaders will be making a big mistake if they postpone the summit, as Obama’s absence is an ideal opportunity to show they are beginning to stand on their own two (I mean, fifty-four) feet after a half-century of supine dependence on Washington (De Gaulle notwithstanding). Americans have always been ambivalent about European unity (we like Europe to act as one, provided it is doing exactly what we want), but Europe and America would all be better off if Europe were a) more capable of shaping world events on its own; b) better equipped to give the United States sound strategic advice, even if it sometimes differed from Washington’s current whims, and c) less reliant on residual U.S. protection. I might think differently if America’s strategic judgment was infallible, but who believes that anymore?

Obama is doing the right thing here by staying away. He’s got plenty of other problems to deal with these days, and Europe is perhaps the one major part of the planet that doesn’t need his attention right now. It’s a a set of stable, democratic, market-based societies facing no external threats that it lacks the wherewithal to handle, including the overblown threat of a resurgent Russia. (According to the IISS, NATO’s European members spent $310 billion on defense in 2007; Russia spent about $36 billion). So if the United States is looking for places where it can reduce its current commitments without imperiling global stability, surely Europe is the place to start. And remember that all we are talking about here is a decision by the White House to forego another trip to Europe (where he’s already been several times).  Furthermore, putting Europe on the back burner may even encourage Europe to do more on various common projects, to remind Washington that transatlantic relations should not be taken for granted.

So Obama’s decision to stay home is the right call, and Ashton’s response is the right reaction. Let’s hope the FT’s measured response carries the day, and not the somewhat overheated interpretations put out by the Times or the Guardian.