Ask Not What Europe Can Do for You

For any U.S. president, the trick to dealing with Europe is to politely ignore its advice.

Barack Obama is in Europe this week, for meetings in which America’s allies are likely to tell him that they can’t contribute much more to the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, and don’t want to re-float the world economy through government deficits. He shouldn’t take it personally. And we shouldn’t treat it as the end of the story.

For half a century and more, in good times and bad, European leaders have advised new American presidents not to bother them with big, risky, expensive Washington ideas. They almost always prefer the status quo — or, at most, very incremental change. But, having said their piece, they then usually come around. (Sometimes — very rarely, it has to be said — they’re right to begin with.)

Obama’s four immediate predecessors all had deep disagreements with major European allies early in their presidency. George W. Bush’s feud with Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac over Iraq was only the most recent of these. Bill Clinton came to office wanting a more activist approach to contain ethnic warfare in the Balkans, but couldn’t sell the idea in Europe and had to back off. Two years later, ironically, it was Chirac’s taunt — "the position of leader of the free world is vacant" — that helped to reignite Clinton’s determination to stop the killing.

On his own first European trip George H.W. Bush urged NATO leaders to counter Mikhail Gorbachev’s "peace-offensive" with bold proposals to overcome the division of Europe and reunify Germany. Too bellicose, the Europeans said. That had, of course, also been their reaction when Ronald Reagan began his presidency by insisting that the East-West détente of the 1970’s wasn’t working and had to be scrapped.

Such a record of disagreement may make us think that Americans always take the hard line; Europeans, the soft. But it hasn’t always been so. The single nastiest transatlantic split of the entire Cold War was probably the one between John Kennedy and Charles De Gaulle over whether to negotiate with the Soviets about West Berlin. Kennedy — in this case, the soft-liner — hoped a compromise settlement would reduce the risk of nuclear war and let the United States stand down from an exposed and indefensible position. De Gaulle, calling it foolish to talk about ceding Western rights in the city just because "Mr. Khrushchev had whistled," refused to take part — and persuaded the West Germans to join him in opposition.

Kennedy was furious. He told a French emissary that he felt "like a man carrying a 200-pound sack of potatoes, and other people, not carrying a similar load … keep telling us how to carry our burden." The United States, he warned, would be "glad to get out of Europe." Dean Rusk, his mild-mannered secretary of state, fumed that it was unclear whether the best way to deal with De Gaulle was through "an ambassador or a psychiatrist."

As models for how American presidents should treat European leaders, George W. Bush and John Kennedy stand out as the angriest — and the least successful. Kennedy became so unwilling to confide in allied governments that he actually gave Rusk oral rather than written instructions for his talks with the Soviets. Otherwise, he feared, Bonn and Paris would learn of the concessions he was prepared to make. Not until the run-up to the invasion of Iraq did transatlantic trust drop so low again.

By contrast, Ronald Reagan, the elder George Bush, and Bill Clinton seemed to grasp that European governments lacked confidence in their own approaches, and would gravitate toward U.S. policy if Washington stood firm. Once they decided what they wanted to do, all three presidents refused to let consultations with allies water down their strategy. (Clinton concluded that a successful turn-around of Balkans policy would occur only if the U.S. told the Europeans what it was going to do, rather than asking their opinion.) But all three of them — unlike Kennedy and the younger Bush — managed to wear down allied opposition to American policy without an open or acrimonious break.

For decades after the Second World War, the great achievement of U.S. foreign policy was precisely to channel — and sometimes, to ignore — European preferences, while patiently calming the resentments that followed. This was true even when Washington spoke loudest about multilateralism. The designers of the Marshall Plan, for example, stressed that they wanted European governments to devise their own plans for American assistance. But they feared that our allies were not really able even to understand their own needs. In George Kennan’s patronizing words, Europe wanted "guidance, not responsibilities." Its economies were too weak; its political institutions, too dysfunctional; its politicians, too parochial in their thinking. The principal author of the Marshall Plan, undersecretary of state Will Clayton, laid down the key requirement of success in the very first memo he wrote on the subject: "The United States must run this show."

Ask President Obama’s advisers privately to describe European policies toward Afghanistan or the global economy, and the words you hear will not be so different: weak, dysfunctional, parochial, unable to summon the unity and resolve to deal with a large problem. If he comes away from this week’s summits with little to show for his urgings, many will read the trip as a sign of the new administration’s own weakness — and of a changing balance of power. Perhaps. But there’s a much older story line here, and the Europeans probably know it better than Obama himself. They always brush off new American presidents. Then, fearing they cannot succeed on their own, they start to reconsider.

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