Globalist Analysis

Obama, Europe and the Inevitable

What does Europe’s embrace of Barack Obama mean for transatlantic relations?

Takeaways


  • The president's popularity abroad should be viewed as an asset if it means that Europeans and others will be more likely to support U.S. policies.
  • For the first time in six years, a majority of Europeans have a positive view of the United States.
  • In 2008, only 19% of Europeans had a favorable view of George Bush's foreign policy. Yet, 77% have a positive view of Barack Obama's in 2009.
  • Is European admiration of President Obama enough to shore up the German, British, and Dutch troop commitments to Afghanistan?

The past seven years have been trying for me and my colleagues who work the North American-European beat.

Intergovernmental cooperation has not been the issue. In fact, since September 11, 2001, one could argue that there has not been such deep and broad collaboration since the period immediately after World War II.

But this common work was driven by necessity and not respect for U.S. policy or admiration for its president. Europeans — the political elites and everyday citizens — were almost uniform in their dissatisfaction with George Bush and with many things American.

Some might try to explain how much they really do admire the United States and its economy and culture, but they would choke on the idea of saying something positive about President Bush, or any other Republican for that matter.

What a difference an election makes! The German Marshall Fund’s new Transatlantic Trends survey documents an almost euphoric level of support for the leadership of Barack Obama. In 2008, only 19% of Europeans had a favorable view of George Bush’s foreign policy. Yet, 77% have a positive view of Barack Obama’s in 2009.

Over 90% of Germans have a favorable view of the current president, an 80 percentage-point increase over last year’s number for the then-incumbent. Even in Turkey, the new president received 50% support when his predecessor had less than 10% last year.

The European passion for Obama surely explains the changed views on the United States throughout the continent. For the first time in six years, a majority of Europeans have a positive view of this country.

More importantly for transatlantic cooperation, a plurality of Europeans now want their political leaders to work with the United States rather than take a more independent course, which was the dominant opinion in 2008.

And, in all countries, American leadership on international challenges is viewed much more positively than it was under the previous administration.

For all Americans, the president’s popularity abroad should be viewed as an asset if it means that Europeans and others will be more likely to support U.S. policies on Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and the Middle East.

Deep divides still exist across the Atlantic on how best to deal with these issues, with Europeans tending to favor strategies that depend largely on diplomacy and “soft power” and Americans tending to see a role, albeit a diminished one, for “hard power.”

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When asked if military force is ever necessary to obtain justice in the world, 71% of Americans agree, while only 25% of Europeans see it the same way. This is a big gap in fundamental attitudes about how to deal with global problems.

Is European admiration of President Obama enough to bridge that gap and, for example, shore up the German, British and Dutch troop commitments to Afghanistan at a time when public opinion in those countries is moving in the opposite direction?

We now reach the Obama dilemma. Americans may want him to use his clout with Europe to bring them closer to us on major issues, but Europeans have a parallel wish. I suspect that the outpouring of support for Barack Obama throughout Western Europe is rooted in a belief that he is really “European” — not by birth but by sensibility.

Dozens of European friends and acquaintances have read “Dreams from My Father” and find evidence in those pages that Barack Obama thinks like they do and not like the typical American. For them and many of their fellow citizens, the popularity of the president rests in what they perceive as his common grounding with them, and their hope is that he will convert the rest of America to a similar perspective.

So, just as we may want him to change the minds of Europeans, they are fervently hoping that he will make us less bellicose, more multilateral and committee practitioners of “soft power.”

What are the chances that he can please one or both of these publics? Unfortunately, I think it is an almost impossible task to achieve either goal. Europeans will see his efforts to lead them in the direction of American policy as indicative that he isn’t really one of them even if they would like him to be.

If he tries to push Americans too hard to embrace the European standard, he will lose the center of the American public even as he pleases much of Europe. First-term presidents want to be re-elected, so I suspect that he will disappoint his many, nonvoting supporters in Europe.

Transatlantic Trends 2010 should indicate whether I am correct in this analysis. It is possible that Europeans just genuinely like the president and will ignore his more “American” qualities? Or, it is possible that they will simply blame the U.S. Congress and the American electorate for thwarting the “European” intentions of a good politician?

However, I suspect that, as real political decisions have to be made, we will see “Obama Euphoria” fade as the Europeans begin to see him more as an American and less like themselves.

This essay is a Transatlantic Takes feature, published by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the stance of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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