“Yes, we can!” Germans shouted in unison with candidate Barack Obama at their Victory Column in Berlin this past summer.
To judge by the crowds and European media, most Europeans were as ecstatic about the coming of the Obama presidency as they were over the departure of George W. Bush. At last, an American president praised multilateralism and the United Nations, and seemed sympathetic to Europe’s socialist culture.
Obama’s multiracial, nontraditional heritage seemed sophisticated and cosmopolitan in a European way that Bush’s Texas accent and Christian fundamentalism most definitely were not.
Despite Bush’s efforts in his second term to work closely with the Europeans, and the emergence of conservative governments in France, Germany and Italy, Old Europe for the most part was all too happy to see him go.
But will Europe always be happy with the Obama it wished for?
Mirek Topolanek, prime minister of the Czech Republic (which currently holds the European Union presidency), just blasted the Obama administration’s stimulus plans as “a way to hell.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel sniffed: “We must look at the causes of this crisis. It happened because we were living beyond our means… . We cannot repeat this mistake.”
And just when President Obama announced the dispatch of thousands more troops to Afghanistan, many European leaders confirmed they will withdraw their own contingents over the next two years.
America, meanwhile, may backtrack on missile defense of Eastern Europe in the face of Russian threats. And there is talk of more trade protectionism in the Democratic-controlled Congress. Europeans wouldn’t be happy if either of these things come to pass.
What then is going on?
In some sense, the Obama administration will bring a new honesty to European-American relations. For the last eight years, Europeans have had it both ways. Bush took out Saddam Hussein, removed the Taliban from power, hunted terrorists, offered firm security guarantees to the Europeans in their squabbles with the Russians, tried to box in Iran, and ran trade deficits with his free and open trade policies. For his efforts, he was caricatured as a cowboy buffoon by European sophisticates.
But now after welcoming Obama, the Europeans are beginning to discover that they must contend with a new administration to the left of themselves. And as we saw with Obama’s recent cavalier treatment of visiting British Prime Gordon Brown – he was given a packet of DVDs, unviewable in Europe, as a going-away gift – Obama doesn’t seem convinced of any special relationship with Europe. His interests and priorities lie more in Asia, Latin America and Africa – places that have also been the great sources of immigration to America the last half-century.
So, it will be harder for Europeans to pull off the old two-step of quietly wanting the U.S. to deter threats while loudly deploring our Neanderthal reliance on brute force.
As Afghanistan turns from a joint NATO project into an American war, the Obama administration may well conclude that if we don’t have European allies against the Taliban, we won’t elsewhere. Perhaps NATO will be seen as a Cold War relic, with no place in Obama’s brave new multipolar world.
Given Obama’s plans to emulate Europe’s expensive socialist entitlement system, there may be less money for defense. Ironically, that would mean less American protection abroad of a disarmed socialist Europe – a continent sandwiched between North Africa, the Middle East and Russia, with millions of unassimilated Muslim immigrants at home.
In matters of foreign policy, Obama likewise has outflanked the Europeans. His calls for talks without restriction with the Iranians; his offer to pour hundreds of millions into Gaza; his outreach to the Syrians; and his popular resonance in South America, the Middle East and Africa suggest that a leftist America now has more in common with some of these former European colonies than do the centrist Europeans.
It was once easy to slur Bush’s war on terror as typical American overkill. But now Europeans better worry that someone in the Obama administration will notice that the renditions, preventative detentions, wiretapping and summary deportations practiced in parts of Europe were often as authoritarian as anything Bush embraced.
On a number of other issues – expensive legislation to combat global warming, multilateral foreign policy, massive government borrowing, relations with unsavory foreign dictators – Obama is moving to the left of Europe.
The trans-Atlantic alliance we’ve taken for granted for so many years, of course, won’t come to an end overnight. But how ironic will it be if its eventual downfall is someday traced not to a loud George Bush bang but to a Barack Obama whimper.
© 2009 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.