Obama’s Farewell to Europe
Is the 44th U.S. President burying the Euro-Atlantic alliance?
April 19, 2016
There is a touching photo of President Obama visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2014. He stares into the eyes of Rembrandt, in the great painter’s “Self-Portrait of the Apostle Paul.”
Later this month, the U.S. President arrives again in Europe, on this occasion to open the Hannover Messe, the continent’s biggest industrial fair. From there, he will travel to London where he will urge the Brits to vote not to leave Europe.
Unlike the Apostle Paul, President Obama has no epistles to read out to the Europeans – the kind of letters, admonitions, bully-pulpit and sometimes plain bullying lines that, from Roosevelt to the Bushes, kept the Euro-Atlantic alliance going.
This mechanism worked even during bad years such as de Gaulle’s nation-firstism in the 1960s or George W. Bush’s disaster in Iraq after 2000.
Worse, there is even a danger that President Obama, like Mark Anthony, has come not to praise Euro-Atlanticism but to bury it. The rather self-centered solipsistic interview Mr. Obama gave Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic Magazine was remarkable for the almost complete absence of any reference to Europe.
The only exception was plenty of scorn for European leaders like the two French presidents, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as Britain’s David Cameron.
Compare to Kennan
This matters because Goldberg’s article on “The Obama Doctrine” is the most famous and most-read article on U.S. foreign policy since George Kennan’s famous Foreign Affairs article.
Signed anonymously as X in July 1947, the latter provided the theoretical under-pinning of the U.S. commitment to stay in Europe.
The net effect of Kennan’s epistle was to reverse the disaster of U.S. withdrawal from Europe in 1919 and subsequent retreat into the isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s.
That withdrawal allowed fascist dictators in Italy, Germany, Spain, Hungary and ugly anti-Jewish governments in Poland and Romania to grow in strengthen until that toxic brew resulted in war.
Not to praise, but to bury
In his Atlantic interview, Obama buried Kennan’s appeal that the United States defend Europe against its own demons and enemies.
This is quite a shift for Mr. Obama. Just recall his resounding speech in Berlin July 2008, while still a presidential candidate, to 200,000 Berliners. They had turned out to support him, much as their grandfathers had thronged to greet Kennedy nearly fifty years before.
At the occasion, Obama listed the world’s problems and then appealed to Europeans to work with him: “No one nation, no matter how large or how powerful, can defeat such challenges alone.”
Lofty rhetoric – but there was no follow-up. The history of European relations under the Obama presidency is one of not finding, or perhaps not wanting to find, any partners in Europe. That’s quite a contrast to the approach of all U.S. presidents between 1945 and 2008.
Part of this can be attributed to the fact that there simply are way too many European leaders. At his first chance as President to meet EU leaders — at the NATO summit held in April 2009 in Strasbourg, France and then across the Rhine in Kehl, Germany — Obama made his pitch and then had to listen as 27 European prime ministers and presidents made their boring speeches, all for home consumption.
Obama was reported to be amazed and dismayed by the Lilliputian “Me, Me, Me” approach of European heads of government. On the one hand, they boasted about creating a single market and a single currency.
On the other hand, they were so high on self-importance that they could never agree on a single foreign policy message or a single person to deliver it.
It did not help that Messrs. Sarkozy and Cameron, trying to build a Blair-like relationship with a U.S. president managed to repeat all of George W. Bush’s Iraq mistakes as they destroyed the state in Libya.
The way they paraded in Tripoli as a liberating couple of heroes who would bring democracy to Libya artfully obscured the fact that their vainglorious pronouncements were possible only thanks to U.S. airpower.
They may have dropped the first bombs, forcing the United States to follow up or be blamed for failure, but left to their own devices, the Cameron-Sarkozy military alliance could have achieved little.
Unlike Eisenhower who stopped the British-French invasion of Egypt in 1956, Obama did nothing to discourage the foolish Anglo-French intervention in Libya.
That opened the gates of hell, as often happens when all state authority is destroyed and nothing replaces it.
In effect, Cameron and Sarkozy created a 1,000 km breach in the north African or southern Mediterranean security wall through which Jihadis, weapons, Islamist ideologues plus scores of thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants now pour into Europe. It has also endangered or destabilized all of Libya’s neighbors.
On U.S. relations with Russia, Obama began as George W. Bush did — by sucking up to Putin who has a simple foreign policy of “Russia UP. America DOWN. Europe OUT.” Hillary Clinton dutifully launched Obama’s “Reset” doctrine.
This policy gem had Russian oligarchs and Putin cronies laughing all the way to their Panama offshore accounts at the naivety of the Obama administration.
There may be a realpolitik justification for letting Russia secure its borders, but Obama will go down in history as the first U.S. president since World War II who got rolled repeatedly by the Kremlin.
A question of values
Europeans are increasingly disillusioned with Barack Obama and his disinterest in them. It cannot even be truthfully said that he has detached himself to execute a “pivot to Asia.”
In the past, Washington invested blood and treasure in Asian wars in Korea and Vietnam and bases in every corner of the Pacific without drifting away from Europe. Moreover, “managing” China and India is now routine for all big countries, not just the United States.
China remains a communist dictatorship where every value that matters in America (except making money) is violated or not allowed to take root.
China’s Sakharov, Liu Xiaobo, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, still lies rotting in the Chinese Gulag. Realpolitik may oblige Obama to say and do nothing about Liu’s incarceration.
But unless the United States is to give up every core value of its existence, the complete lack of freedom in China cannot be wished away.
The same is true, to a greater or lesser degree, of many of Obama’s would-be Asian pivot allies.
The region where American values are strongest and most actively supported remains Europe. The EU remains the world’s biggest market of 500 million mainly middle class citizens living under rule of law.
According to IMF figures on the world’s 15 trillion-dollar plus economies, more than half are European or those based on Euro-Atlantic governance values like Canada and Australia, or today even Japan and South Korea.
It would therefore seem less than logical for Obama to steer the U.S. away from Europe. The belief that America’s future lies in Asia is spurious, given that democratic values are still non-existent across much of it. Or they are denied to vast swathes of Asia’s men and women on racist, gender, economic or religious grounds.
To be sure, President Obama’s waning interest in Europe or the continued success of its union – unusual among postwar U.S. presidents – has not been helped by picayune leaders in Europe. Other than Angela Merkel, who nevertheless sees everything through domestic German eyes, the current crop is the most unimpressive generation of elected European political leaders since the 1930s.
Obama is coming to London to tell the Brits to vote to stay in the EU in the populist plebiscite called by David Cameron to manage internal Conservative Party differences.
In the past British communists and other leftists would protest a visit by a US president. Now it is the anti-EU Conservatives who complain.
Perhaps there will be a last flash of oratory from Obama that may sway Brexit voters before the divisive June 23rd referendum, but few count on it. He has shown less and less interest in Europe, and the EU – including its member states like the UK.
If America gives up on engaging with Europe and if Britain votes itself out of the European Union, the future of Europe looks shakier and shakier. Then, its earlier past will beckon rather than a future in a confident Euro-Atlantic Alliance.
Let us hope it does not come to another 1919-style detachment before the United States and European leaders wake up to the consequences of such an engaged alliance disintegrating.
Managing the rest of the world is important too, but Europe’s is not diminished. Sixty-seven years later, Kennan’s warning stands.
Obama will go down as the first US president since WWII who got rolled repeatedly by the Kremlin.
Unless the US gives up all its core values, a total lack of freedom in China cannot be wished away.
Obama's waning interest in Europe or its continued union has not been helped by picayune EU leaders.
The history of US-EU relations under the Obama presidency is one of not finding partners in Europe.