As Obama jets off to Asia, Europeans are still licking their wounds over his decision to blow off the Berlin Wall anniversary. Alex Massie on the Atlantic crowd’s case of continent envy. Plus, our Big Fat Story on the toughest issues Obama faces in Asia.
No sooner had Barack Obama been sworn in as the 44th president of the United States than foreign ministries and their embassies in Washington began an unseemly race to see which country could secure the honor of the first meeting with the young, dashing, glamorous American president.
This "competition" was, in many respects, absurd. But, trivial though it was, it did not pass unnoticed in Europe that the first foreign leader welcomed to the Obama White House was the new Japanese prime minister, Taro Aso. Was this, as some speculated at the time, a sign of things to come?
If, after all, Obama could find the time to travel to Copenhagen to lobby for Chicago’s doomed Olympics bid could he not also have gone to Berlin to mark the anniversary of the greatest allied success—albeit one shared with many other players—since the Second World War itself?
For years, there has been talk that the United States would shift its gaze from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Victory in the Cold War was supposed to be the signal that Europe was old news and the new action was to be found in Asia. Nonetheless, successive presidents still found themselves tugged back to Europe. George H.W. Bush had to contend with the disintegration of the Soviet Union; Bill Clinton found himself embroiled in the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. The long-awaited shift from east to west was delayed.
Until, perhaps, now. The symbolism of the American president’s travels this week is as suggestive as it is telling. Rather than attend the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Obama is traveling to Asia.
Outlining the details of a trip that takes Obama to Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said: “The overarching theme is that America is a Pacific nation, it understands the importance of Asia in the 21st century, and it's going to be engaged in a very comprehensive way." In other words, Asia may be China's backyard, but the United States will not give up its own strategic, economic, military and political interests in the region.
The president’s decision to skip Berlin was worth at least one raised eyebrow. If, after all, Obama could find the time to travel to Copenhagen to lobby for Chicago’s doomed Olympics bid could he not also have gone to Berlin to mark the anniversary of the greatest allied success—albeit one shared with many other players—since the Second World War itself?
• Big Fat Story: The Toughest Issues Facing Obama in Asia• Lewis M. Simons: Obama's 'Smart Power' PlayOn the other hand, the festivities in Berlin had an elegiac quality. The year 1989 and the crumbling of the Warsaw Pact were, arguably, the last time history on a global scale and with worldwide ramifications was made in Europe. It marked, in Francis Fukuyama's famous phrase, “The End of History.” In Europe, at least.
Since then, the continent has largely turned inward, concentrating on the pressing, painstaking task of welcoming the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into the European Union. That has proved difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, leaving Paris and Berlin, in particular, with little time or inclination to look too far beyond the continent’s borders.
If Obama’s election was cheered with great excitement in the United States, it was greeted with enormous relief in Europe. Donald Rumsfeld’s disdain for “Old Europe” still stung, long after Rumsfeld himself had departed the Pentagon in disgrace. Obama offered the prospect of a new era in trans-Atlantic relations. In July of this year, the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project asked Europeans if they think “America will do the right thing in world affairs.” Ninety-three percent of Germans, 91 percent of the French, and 86 percent of Britons replied that they were confident it will. The figures for 2008 were 14 percent, 13 percent, and 16 percent, respectively.
These figures implicitly endorse the idea of American leadership, recognizing that on major international importance, America remains the indispensable nation. And so Europe looks to Obama for global leadership. Looks and waits. And waits. From Iran, Afghanistan, climate change, the global financial crisis, and the Israeli-Palestine conflict, London, Paris and Berlin want Washington to lead.
Matters have not been helped by the president's personal rapport with European leaders. Often these might best be described as perfunctory. There is little “chemistry” between President Obama and Britain's Gordon Brown, leading to suspicions, widely aired in the British press, that Obama has concluded there's little to be gained from being too close to a lame-duck prime minister. Nor does the president seem to enjoy a notably warm relationship with Angela Merkel.
Of the issues, Afghanistan and climate change may be the most pressing. Obama has yet to say if he will travel to the climate-change conference in Copenhagen next month; many Europeans, while grudgingly accepting the difficulties of forging a new agreement in the teeth of a global recession, still cling to the hope that the United States will take the lead on climate change. After all, as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases in the industrialized world, any agreement is meaningless without it.
On Afghanistan, too, the time has come for the president to show his hand. The longer he delays announcing his decision on future troop levels and strategy, the harder it becomes for European leaders to justify their continued support for the war. As Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, said recently, “What is the goal? What is the road? And in the name of what? Where are the Americans? It begins to be a problem.”
Support for the war is palpably diminishing in Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere, even though NATO has largely committed itself to following General Stanley McChrystal's proposed new strategy. But increasingly, Europeans are demanding that Obama give the war a renewed sense of purpose. The word "dithering" is beginning to be heard on this side of the Atlantic, too.
In a sense, this is unreasonable, not least because if Obama does dispatch an extra 40,000 troops, those additional American soldiers will outnumber Britain’s total commitment—the second largest in Afghanistan—by four to one.
So it would not be unreasonable if Washington were also growing impatient with European back-biting. Obama has more skin in this and every other game in town than do any of America’s allies.
Nevertheless, the view from Europe is increasingly of a president who talks a very fine game but is, despite being a wholly welcome improvement upon his predecessor, not always capable of providing, or even willing to do so, the kind of American leadership he promised and that was expected from him.
In time, this may lead Europe to think again and boost its own capabilities—both diplomatic and military—but for now the old continent is, for better or worse, old news as the president’s gaze and attention seem to have shifted from the Atlantic to the far side of the vast Pacific.
Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.