This is a guest note by Nicholas Kitchen, Editor of IDEAS Reports and a Fellow of the LSE IDEAS — or for acronym-challenged, Diplomacy & Strategy at the London School of Economics
Barack Obama: Last Transatlantic President?
When Barack Obama took office in January, expectations of what the new President could bring to international affairs were stratospheric. If his name, race, origins and upbringing were anything to go by, Barack Hussein Obama was a revolutionary choice of the American people.
Europeans celebrated the swearing in of a President whose “mere presence at the White House pulls America up”, according to Le Monde. Here was an individual of clear intellect and extraordinary eloquence who promised a new era of American multilateralism and a subtler approach to the intricacies of international diplomacy. Comparisons with his predecessor, derided in Europe as much for his parochialism as his good vs. evil approach to foreign policy, only served to heighten these hopes, with Die Zeit declaring that “The Age of Stupidity is Over”.
Yet such high expectations were at odds with the litany of challenges facing the new Administration. Obama’s inbox included two wars, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the intensifying problem of global climate change, a resurgent and belligerent Russia, an Iranian regime intent on stirring regional instability and gaining nuclear weapons – as too were North Korea – and global opinion of American leadership at all-time lows.
Domestically, the new President faced not only the challenge of reversing a deep recession, but had also pledged to tackle that most difficult of public policy challenges: reforming healthcare. Taken together, no President had taken office under more difficult circumstances since Franklin Roosevelt.
That the FDR comparison was so often made ensured that Obama’s first hundred days were more intensely scrutinized than any previous President. The initial announcements were surprisingly far-reaching, as the Democrats exploited the Republicans’ disarray to push hard on all fronts, as if, noted one observer, he was trying to accomplish one thousand days’ work of change in one tenth of the amount of time.
Guantanamo, the symbol of Bush’s deeply flawed Global War on Terror, would be closed, and the policies of waterboarding halted. American combat forces would be withdrawn from Iraq within eighteen months as the President sought to hasten the transition to full Iraqi civilian and military authority. The repeal of two Bush administrations blocks on funding to groups that allow abortions and for research on embryonic stem cells similarly met well with more liberal European opinion. The President’s advocacy of Keynesian stimulus policies with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act also bought the United States more into line with the social-democratic conception of market democracy more common in Europe.
The candidate that had drawn a crowd of 200,000 to hear him speak in Berlin shared, it appeared, the beliefs and priorities of his European allies.
A year on the outlook for Transatlantic cooperation has not lived up to the promise of those first months, as a series of diplomatic gaffes have soured relations with European leaders. The new administration returned a bust of Churchill that Tony Blair had loaned to the White House following the September 11th attacks, and followed this up by reciprocating Gordon Brown’s gift upon his visit to Washington – a pen holder made from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slave ship, the HMS Gannet – with a box of DVDs.
This lack of diplomatic tact might have been considered trivial had these incidents not been followed up with the relegating of Britain’s cherished “special relationship” to the status of a “special partnership”, a partnership which was made to appear more of a nuisance when Obama repeatedly refused to grant Brown a private meeting at the United Nations in September. That Britain had ignored the expressed wishes of the White House in releasing Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber, hardly told a tale of close transatlantic cooperation.
Other European leaders have fared little better, with both Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel expressing their annoyance with the US administration’s attitude towards sensitive historical anniversaries: Sarkozy over Obama’s flying visit to mark the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings and Merkel over the President’s refusal to attend the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall.
These diplomatic contretemps were the outward face of more serious divides: over the best response to the financial crisis and in particular the issue of regulation of complex financial services instruments, with Mirek Topolanek using the Czech Republic’s presidency of the European Union to describe American bailouts and stimulus policies as “the road to hell”.
Transatlantic relations have of course experienced profound disagreements in the past, including when the Alliance was more tightly bound together in its shared opposition to the Soviet Union. But there is reason to believe that the current coolness is an expression of something more fundamental than family squabbles over policy details.
In the last ten years the world has in many ways left behind the post-Cold War era, and as a result other relationships have come to matter more for the United States than its alliance with Europe.
In advance of his trip to Asia, Obama announced himself the ‘Pacific President’. There were visits to longstanding American allies in the region in Japan and South Korea, as well as attending the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Forum where the President described the United States as “undoubtedly a Pacific nation”. For a man raised in Hawaii, this kind of talk should perhaps come as no surprise, but it reflects an underlying reality in world politics over the last ten years which is now being made explicit: the rise to superpower status of China.
Obama spent four days in China on his Asia trip (compared to just one in Japan) and at every major international summit it has been China’s President Hu Jintao that Obama has most sought to speak to. The geopolitical relationship between the two countries is complex. China’s rapid economic growth has been predicated upon exports to the United States, and tensions exist between the two countries over what China’s export subsidies and the artificially low level of the Yuan. At the same time, the United States has essentially been paying for its Chinese imports on credit: China now holds $2.27 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the world’s largest cache, most of which is in dollar-denominated bonds.
As the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted in November, the United States today is no longer the world’s biggest creditor; it is the world’s biggest debtor, with China as the largest overseas holder of U.S. debt instruments. Not that this puts China in a position of dominance over the United States, far from it – American consumers remain the guarantors of Chinese growth, and by extension, the domestic legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.
What it does mean is that the United States and China are locked together in a symbiotic relationship that defines our world, and whilst each seeks to leverage the relationship for their own gain – China for example has attempted to make inroads in America’s structural power by hinting that the dollar’s status as reserve currency could come under question – each knows that it is dependent upon the other.
What Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the “G2” is the relationship that defines our age.
Not that Europe can complain. The Lisbon Treaty presented the European Union with the opportunity to make more of an impact on world affairs, but the appointments of international unknowns reflected the major European powers’ reluctance to pool control over foreign policy.
Whilst Tony Blair’s “candidacy” was never likely to generate enough consensus within European capitals and publics still mindful of the transatlantic rift generated by the Iraq war, the decision to eschew the appointment of a internationally recognizable figurehead for Europe who could drive a truly European foreign policy means that Washington will remain, in the words of one prominent American observer echoing Henry Kissinger’s three-decades-old complaint, “unsure of who to call” when it wants to speak to Europe.
On Afghanistan too, Europe has been reluctant, at best prepared to await the announcement of a new American strategy, at worst appearing to bandwagon on the back of American power when the perception in the US is that Europe’s security interests are at least as threatened by the situation in Afghanistan as are United States’. Some in Europe have come to believe that its interests are more bound up in relations with Russia, whose divide and rule policy towards EU member states over energy policy has to date prevented a policy consensus emerging on that issue, and Turkey, which forms the gateway between the European and Islamic worlds and whose succession to EU member status generates hostility in much of Europe.
Yet the truth remains that if Europe wants to be a major player on the world stage it needs to think of its role more strategically and systemically if the United States is not to regard the relationship with China as its most important bilateral tie.
It is ironic that the President whose election was so lauded throughout Europe may therefore turn out to be the President under whose tenure neorealist predictions of the demise of the Transatlantic Alliance come to pass.
There is no doubt that the United States – from an ideological and political perspective – would prefer to partner with Europe in the management of international relations. Whether Europe and America have, or are prepared to construct for themselves, sufficiently similar interests to make such partnership a possibility, is however very much in doubt.
If Obama really is the United States’ first Pacific President, he will surely be its last Transatlantic President.
— Nicholas Kitchen