Obama’s European Honeymoon Is Over

Time to mend some transatlantic fences.


The notion that the United States cannot govern the world alone, that the time has come for Americans to think "intercontinentally," is hardly revolutionary. On July 4, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy described the obsolescence of the idea of U.S. hegemony: "Acting on our own, by ourselves, we cannot establish justice throughout the world; we cannot insure its domestic tranquility or provide for its common defense, or promote its general welfare, or secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." The United States must, as Kennedy believed then, seek out a partner in this endeavor. That partner was Europe.

Forty-seven years later, a new U.S. president, Barack Obama appears willing to resurrect the tenets of Kennedy’s speech, adopting a far more conciliatory approach to transatlantic relations than his Republican predecessor. In his address during April’s NATO summit, Obama lamented the U.S. "failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world," and acknowledged that "there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive." He promised a more cooperative, multilateral approach where America "listens and learns from our friends and allies." European heads of state responded in kind, eager to ride the Obama wave of change. Hopes for an Obama-led U.S. foreign policy soared, as did expectations for a more integrated and fully formed U.S.-EU partnership.

But that sentiment seems to be fading and some unexpected coolness has entered the relationship. As early as the G-20 summit in London, also in April, divergences appeared between the United States and the European Union. Washington wanted the summit talks to emphasize joint economic stimulus measures. The EU — particularly Germany, with Europe’s largest economy, as well as France and Italy — stressed the need for greater financial regulation. Further, Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized that Germany needed both to export more and maintain balanced budgets — ideas at odds with Washington, which viewed greater European domestic consumption and massive fiscal stimulus as important pieces of the global economic rebalancing puzzle.

Climate change is another area of concern. It is now too late for the U.S. Congress to pass a climate-change bill before December’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Further, whatever climate legislation that does emerge from the U.S. legislature is unlikely to be as meaningful as most Europeans (and many Americans) had hoped. This is leading to disillusionment across the Atlantic, which would like to synchronize its trading scheme with the new U.S. plan.

Differences over Afghanistan in recent weeks also explain some of the unsettling state of affairs. Despite the hawkish statements of figures like NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, most European countries are looking to pull back their commitments and support a smaller-scale and lighter-footprint war there. Washington sees Europeans reluctant to provide more resources to fight the Taliban, while in European capitals there is concern that the Obama administration’s strategy is growing more uncertain.

It is normal for countries to disagree, even while remaining the staunchest of allies, but the cooling of the U.S.-EU relationship has less to do with policy discrepancies than a growing sense of unfulfilled promises. The Obama administration may have jettisoned the unilateralist cast of the Bush administration, but it has fallen shy of the more ambitious rhetoric that characterized most previous administrations, whether that of presidents Kennedy, Clinton, or George H.W. Bush.

In his 1962 speech, Kennedy called for a "Declaration of Interdependence" with Europe. The administration of George H.W. Bush produced the "Transatlantic Declaration." President Bill Clinton launched the "New Transatlantic Agenda" and "Joint U.S.-EU Action Plan." But no such vision has yet emerged from the Obama administration. Instead, framed by a pragmatic and unsentimental outlook, it appears that while the United States sees a collection of 27 countries with whom it can and must broker deals, it is not attune to ways to share wide-ranging goals.

While Russia has benefited from an Obama "reset" and the Chinese now have a "strategic" as well as economic dialogue, a new U.S. strategy towards the EU is hard to discern. And with the absence of a single European approach making transatlantic coordination cumbersome, unitary states such as China, India, Brazil, and even Russia are only too happy to fill in the leadership gap on a range of pressing issues from Iran to the global economy — but not always in a way that promotes U.S.-European interests. For example, in the delicate task of moving Iran away from a nuclear future, Europe’s cooperation will be important, but with their global clout and Security Council vetoes, China and Russia are also critical players.

With remaining pieces of the Lisbon Treaty about to fall into place and the identity of the first EU president to be decided soon thereafter, the time is ripe for the European Union to assume a greater role on the world stage and for Obama, as he continues to come under greater international scrutiny, to treat his new European counterpart as a real partner in the U.S. multilateralist foreign-policy agenda. Whoever becomes the EU president must be someone of global stature — former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example — an individual capable of forging common EU foreign policy positions. The United States in turn must make good on its promise to engage with its European partner.

There’s no time like the present. Next week’s U.S.-EU summit in Washington offers the perfect occasion for the Obama administration to crank up its rhetoric about the importance of the U.S.-European relationship and to finally make good on Kennedy’s 1962 plan to engage "a strong and united Europe … with whom the United States could deal on a basis of full equality in all the great and burdensome tasks of building and defending a community of free nations."

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