When German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets with President Obama this week in Washington, symbols will outweigh substance, even more than they usually do in international politics. The rationale for the visit, after all, is explicitly symbolic: the president will bestow the Medal of Freedom on the chancellor. Yet the predictable photo ops will just add to the countless images both the chancellor and the president have already generated during recent travels—Merkel in Asia and Obama in Europe. Indeed, the American press has been regaling the public with shots of the president lifting a pint in a pub in Moneygall, Ireland and slamming ping pong with British Prime Minister David Cameron. For this president, who is less interested in foreign policy than any predecessor in modern history, images like these are what will have to suffice as diplomacy. His agenda includes ratcheting down American influence overseas, so he can focus on social engineering at home. No other president has relinquished international leadership and power so casually.
Obama had to travel to Europe for that Guinness. Now Europe is coming to him: Merkel arrives at an opportune moment, as the 2012 election season heats up, since her visit can contribute to the lingering illusion that the Old World is interested in the opinions of the American administration. The favor is of course mutual: Merkel's party has recently suffered a series of regional electoral defeats in Germany, and some symbolic imagery of her standing next to President Obama may pump up her sagging popularity back home. You smile in my photo, I’ll smile in yours.
That trans-Atlantic politics—once a foundation of American foreign policy—have degenerated into such empty symbolism results directly from the Obama administration's eagerness to downplay the importance of Europe. This post-Atlanticist shift in Washington under the first Pacific-rim president is ironic, in light of the history of the 2008 election. Candidate Obama's speech at the Victory Column in Berlin and the enthusiastic response he received from the German public helped clinch the White House for him. That event seemed to convince the American electorate that Obama could heal the rift with Europe that had erupted during the Bush years: the bitterness in demonstrations in London and Paris and the silliness about “freedom fries” on Capitol Hill. Obama promised to put an end to anti-Americanism among our old allies, to nurture neglected friendships, and to rebuild the familiar foreign policy ties that seemed to have buckled under the weight of the Iraq War.
By and large, the Obama administration has only accelerated the separation of Europe and the U.S., far beyond anything that took place under the Bush administration.
Instead of reconnecting to Europe, however, the Obama administration has effectively ignored it, treating it even more dismissively than anything that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might have implied by describing long-standing allies as "Old Europe." There has been no major collaboration between Europe and Obama's Washington, no shared agenda, no coordinated policy. On the contrary, as far as the major issue of the day goes—the economic crisis—policies in Europe have been diametrically opposed to the Obama stimulus agenda—which surely explains the stronger recovery in Germany than in the U.S. By and large, the Obama administration has only accelerated the separation of Europe and the U.S., a continental drift apart far greater than anything that took place under the Bush administration. Obama's choice to begin his European reset in 2009 by caving into Russian objections to a missile defense system signaled the start of his post-European foreign policy. Two years later, we are left with a Washington visit by the German chancellor and no prospects for any significant discussions, let alone results. Nothing is on the table. Merkel will not peddle her brand-new rejection of nuclear energy to Obama, and Obama will not try to offer advice on the European budget mess. No significant joint initiative on the Arab Spring will emerge, nor any new partnership in counter-terrorism. There is no alliance on any of the major issues of the day.
This hollowing out of the trans-Atlantic partnership is nowhere more evident than in the two current hotspots: Afghanistan and Libya. Obama embraced the Afghanistan War, contrasting it with the Iraq War which he deemed wrong, because it was only a “war of choice.” Simultaneously he advocated constantly for multilateralism, meaning cooperation with European powers, in contrast to the alleged unilateralism of his predecessor. Yet he was completely unable to convince any European ally to increase troop commitments to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Some, like the Netherlands, have in fact already withdrawn, and others are likely to follow suit. Under Obama, the American contribution to the war effort has grown from around a half to two-thirds of the total number of troops in the country—followed distantly by the U.K. and Germany. This German participation in Afghanistan remains controversial, and Merkel has had to pay a political price for it—perhaps Obama will thank her—but in the end, the German contribution is very small and unlikely to survive the next election cycle. The net effect of the Obama administration policy in this arena amounts to a nearly total Americanization of the war. It's hard to see the multilateralism in it—nearly as hard as it is to find Europeans on the front lines.
Meanwhile, during the Libyan crisis, Obama's personal instinct to run away from American leadership roles in international matters dovetailed with modern Germany's historical inclination toward pacifism. This combination produced a stunning result: the decision by Germany to abstain on the Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing the military intervention in Libya. Since the Obama administration only reluctantly supported a Libyan intervention, Germany had no reason to treat it as a priority either. This abstention was nonetheless stunning because, for the first time ever, Germany voted against "the West"—the U.S., the U.K. and France—siding instead with other abstainers, including Russia and China. For a German government to break with the Atlantic world and end up in such politically questionable company went far beyond symbols, and exposed how fragile the western alliance has grown under the Obama administration's benign neglect.
Neither in Afghanistan nor in Libya are the U.S. and Europe on the same page, and this holds for no European country more than Germany, the continent's economic powerhouse. Trans-Atlantic? There is no shared agenda, and no shared vision. So when the president awards the chancellor the Medal of Freedom, we can look forward only to a slew of staged photographs and lots of stereotypical symbols, signifying nothing. Perhaps they will find a minute to reminisce about the once robust Atlantic alliance: a fond memory. If the American administration doesn't take foreign policy seriously, no wonder alliances wither away and state visits become perfunctory.
UPDATE: In response to a post at the Atlantic Community by Joerg Wolf and Elias Gladstone saying Russell Berman is wrong in stating that Obama was "completely unable to convince any European ally to increase troop commitments," Berman writes the following:
Like Joerg Wolf and Elias Gladstone, I appreciate the importance of a vibrant Atlantic alliance. To support a strong alliance, however, requires a willingness to recognize the profound imbalance that has been developing over decades and that has come to a head in the Afghanistan War. The declining commitment of Europeans to the alliance and, in particular, to the engagement in Afghanistan, is wearing away at the strategic ties between the US and Europe.The political import of this development reflects on the foreign policy of the Obama administration, which came into office in the name of multilateralism—pursuing greater cooperation with the traditional European allies—but in fact the result has been less cooperation in the form of a dramatic decline in the proportion of European troop presence in Afghanistan.According to ISAF statistics, in December 2008, just before President Obama's inauguration, US troops at 19,950 represented only 38.7% of ISAF. The rest of the alliance, primarily European (but also including Canada, Australia and New Zealand) was a clear majority of 61.3%By 2010, however, US troops had grown to 68.2%, and the rest of ISAF (even including new comers like Georgia) had dwindled to 31.8%. How could this happen?The answer is clear: the Obama administration chose to grow the number of troops significantly (the "surge") but was unable to convince the Europeans to increase their participation at anything like a proportionate rate. Thus, for example, while Germany did increase the absolute number of troops between 2008 to 2010 (from 3600 to 4909), the German fraction of ISAF was nearly cut in half: from 6.98% of ISAF in 2008 to 3.72% in 2010. The Obama pursuit of multilateralism clearly led to a much greater Americanization of the war and a considerable reduction of the European participation. Despite the much touted European admiration for Obama, he was not able to keep European involvement in Afghanistan at anything like the rate it had been during the Bush administration.The European role in ISAF was also reduced through a genuine reduction in the absolute numbers of troops from the Netherlands. Wolf and Gladstone object to my having stated that the Netherlands "have withdrawn," but their own figures show an 89% reduction in the number of Dutch troops in ISAF. If they prefer to believe that an 89% drop does not constitute a withdrawal, I will prefer not to argue over semantics. At the end of the day, the Dutch have chosen to provide 1578 fewer troops in 2010 than they did in 2008. I wonder if Wolf and Gladstone are willing to describe that as evidence of multilateralism.And while Wolf and Gladstone do not want to concede that Europeans are going to continue to withdraw, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maziere recently reiterated that Germany will begin to withdraw its troops by the beginning of next year, and Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacon announced that Spain would begin to hand over its role to Afghan forces later this year. The imbalance between US and European participation will continue to grow.Another way to think about the numbers shift compares total US and non-US ISAF growth between 2008 and 2010. Non-US ISAF (which includes some Canada, Australia, New Zealand group as well as new comer Georgia with nearly 1,000 new troops and Turkey which, while part of NATO, is not regarded as European by many Europeans) grew by about 10,000; US ISAF grew by more than 70,000. In other words, for every additional European (non-US ISAF) soldier, the US had to produce seven American soldiers. An interesting ratio! Some soldiers are apparently more equal than others. Given this calculation, it is curious that Wolf and Gladstone are worried that Europeans might be alienated by American suggestions that the burden be shared more equitably.More equitable in what sense? The same ISAF source compares troop contributions per one million population. The US is far ahead of any of the West European countries. In 2010, the US had 291.3 troops in Afghanistan per one million population, compared to 153.5 for the UK, 136.4 for Denmark, 61.4 for France, 59.8 for Germany, and only 11.8 for the Netherlands. Those are hardly evidence of multilateral equity: why should American soldiers be sent to war at such greater rates than Europeans? If one, alternatively, compares in terms of GDP, for every $1 billion, the US sent 6.06 troops, compared to the UK at 4.21 and France at 1.49. In other words, if troop allocations were a taxation on GDP, France would have to quadruple its contingent to be at the same rate as the US.Or the grim statistic: over the past decade, US troops have suffered 64% of the allied casualties. This is a high figure, since before the Obama administration, non-US troops represented the majority in ISAF. That high percentage does however reflect the restriction of some non-US forces to non-combat missions where casualties are less probable. This discrepancy too is putting pressure on the tenability of the Atlantic alliance.Finally, Wolf and Gladstone conclude by citing US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' address of June 10 as evidence of the vitality of the European contribution to ISAF. Yet the quotation they select, taken out of context, misrepresents the overall message of Gates' highly critical address. In fact, Gates' point in that speech is exactly consistent with mine: the Europeans, the NATO partners, are not carrying a fair share in expenditures, weaponry or troops. For example: "Though we can take pride in what has been accomplished and sustained in Afghanistan, the ISAF mission has exposed significant shortcomings in NATO – in military capabilities, and in political will. Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform – NOT counting the U.S. military – NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25- to 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and much more." Can this be clearer? Despite the wealth and population of the NATO countries, they have a very difficult time meeting their obligations, which are in any case pegged far below what the US provides. NATO is not operating as a single undertaking but as an increasingly divided institution. This division undermines the unity of the association.In the same speech, which Wolf and Gladstone curiously view as an endorsement for the European contribution in NATO, Gates continues, "In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance: Between members who specialize in 'soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the 'hard' combat missions. Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership – be they security guarantees or headquarters billets – but don’t want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable."I share with Wolf and Gladstone (I believe) an aspiration for a strong Atlantic alliance. Yet the validity of that hope is no reason to declare the really existing alliance sufficient or even just viable. It is not. On the contrary, Gates calls it "unacceptable." His concerns are definitely warranted, and the evidence is nowhere more abundant than in Afghanistan.