Metrosexual Healing

Can Barack Obama save the trans-Atlantic alliance?

BARBARA SAX/AFP/Getty Images Global celebrity: Barack Obamas astonishing worldwide popularity could help him govern, but it can only take him so far with Europe.

Foreign-policy analyst Parag Khanna, writing in the July/August 2004 issue of this magazine, once playfully referred to Europe as the metrosexual superpower. He posited that Europes seductive combination of hard power and a sensitive side had made the European Union a more effective diplomatic player than the United States. Substance, Khanna noted, is nothing without style.

Now, U.S. voters are considering whether to elect a man who is arguably the most hip and stylish presidential candidate they have ever seen. So, is the polished, suave Barack Obamaoften caricatured as a slim, cosmopolitan intellectual who rides bikes and enjoys arugulathe American president Europeans have been dreaming of?

BARBARA SAX/AFP/Getty Images Global celebrity: Barack Obamas astonishing worldwide popularity could help him govern, but it can only take him so far with Europe.

Foreign-policy analyst Parag Khanna, writing in the July/August 2004 issue of this magazine, once playfully referred to Europe as the metrosexual superpower. He posited that Europes seductive combination of hard power and a sensitive side had made the European Union a more effective diplomatic player than the United States. Substance, Khanna noted, is nothing without style.

Now, U.S. voters are considering whether to elect a man who is arguably the most hip and stylish presidential candidate they have ever seen. So, is the polished, suave Barack Obamaoften caricatured as a slim, cosmopolitan intellectual who rides bikes and enjoys arugulathe American president Europeans have been dreaming of?

Republicans have relentlessly mocked the Democratic Illinois senator for his July 24 speech in Berlins Tiergarten park, in which he appeared before an enthusiastic, 200,000-strong crowd in front of the Victory Column. His campaign rarely mentions the event, understandably wary of the global celebrity label that rival John McCains campaign has hung around his neck. But if he overcomes his recent stretch of bad news cycles, Obama might have a shot at restoring the United States broken trans-Atlantic tiesnot because he will become the crypto-Frenchman that middle America so fearsbut because, as Khanna suggests, style is essential to successful public diplomacy.

Polls have consistently shown that Obama is hugely popular in most countries, and especially among the United States closest NATO allies. Healthy majorities in Britain, France, Germany, and Italy think the Democratic nominee would improve Americas relations with the world, according to a recent BBC poll. And nearly half of the nearly 24,000 people polled in all 22 countries46 percentsaid that Obama would fundamentally change their view of the United States if he were elected, compared with 27 percent who thought otherwise.

The foreign-policy pundits usual stern reminder is that Obama will inevitably disappoint. And indeed he might: No politician could possibly live up to the lofty expectations the Democratic candidate set for himself in Berlin. Defeating terrorism, eliminating nuclear weapons, saving the planet from climate changethese are just a few of the ambitious goals Obama laid out in Berlin.

As such commentators rightly argue, Europes disagreements with the United Statesespecially regarding the use of hard powerare structural. They would likely still exist whether George W. Bush, John McCain, or Barack Obama were in the Oval Office. European leaders evince all the backbone of a bowl of Jell-O in standing up to Russia, as The Economists Sept. 6 cover colorfully depicts, making clear in meetings that they wont go along with U.S. attempts to punish Moscow for its Georgian adventure. Nor was Europes seductive style apparently enough to prevent Ukraines prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, from concluding that Brussels bureaucrats can do little to protect her country from Vladimir Putins wrath; Ukraines government has now collapsed as a result.

Its doubtful even Obama, whose recent statements on Russia have mirrored the administrations, can convince Europeans to show some spine. You could almost hear the crickets chirping when the senator told Berliners, The Afghan people need our troops and your troops, a sentiment little different from what Bush had been expressing for months. But when, a couple of beats later, he said, This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, rapturous applause ensued. Fantasy beats reality every time.

Where the pundits go wrong, however, is in assuming that Europeans will become disillusioned when President Obama doesnt meet their expectations. Take the issue of climate change, where, as far as Europe is concerned, the major substantive policy difference between Obama and Bush lies. Obamas plan calls for an 80 percent reduction in U.S. emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. It sounds great in theory, and scientists say drastic measures are exactly what is needed.

Now count the votes in the U.S. Senate for such a radical proposal. The latest version of the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill died a painful death, and it was far less ambitious, positing a 65 percent reduction from current levelswhich are already far higher than they were in 1990. But NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who has been uniquely prescient on the global warming issue, argues that the current consensus target for stabilizing carbon dioxide in the Earths atmosphere, 450 parts per million (ppm), is already too high, and we must bring that number down to 350 ppm. The measures needed, according to Hansen, are extraordinary. But Europeanswho have generally reduced their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol but not by the daunting amount neededseem satisfied with Obamas good intentions, just as they were with Bill Clinton and Al Gores wildly unsuccessful, halfhearted attempts to get the United States to adopt Kyoto.

The evidence, in short, suggests that European publics will be happy to again have a U.S. president who makes all the right noises. After all, how much do ordinary French, Germans, Italians, and others really know about Obamas policies or how American politics works? A closer look at that BBC poll, moreover, reveals that the last question asked is: To what extent do you agree or disagree that the election of Barack Obama as US president, being an African-American man, would fundamentally change your perception of the United States? (my emphasis). The United States overcoming its racial legacy may be change Europeans can believe in, but its hardly the basis for lock-step trans-Atlantic unity. Obama will likely find his popularity of dubious value once he tries to convince Europeans to sign on to another round of sanctions on Iran, send more troops to Kabul, or play hardball with Dmitry Medvedev.

Still, European elites will be pleased to have a partner who is well-liked enough to give them cover when they do side with the United States against their publicsas the popular Clinton did despite the allies deep disagreements over trade, the use of force in the Balkans, and a host of other issues.

Style over substance? Its what Europeans want, and Obama gives it to them. With both barrels.

Note: This article originally stated that current levels of carbon dioxide are 450 ppm, whereas that is the current consensus target for stabilizing the Earth’s atmosphere, not the current concentration. FP regrets the error.

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