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Clinton in Brussels: Obama Begins Europe Charm Offensive

By in Washington, DC

With Hillary Clinton's visit to Brussels, Washington is set to begin its European charm offensive. President Obama and Vice President Biden also plan to visit the Continent soon, but many Europeans remain uncertain whether the trans-Atlantic climate has really changed all that much.

Washington no longer has any bones to pick with Europe. When George W. Bush visited Europe for the last time in June 2008, the debate leading up to his visit was over America's chlorine-rinsed chickens. The unloved US president wanted Europe to open up its market for the controversial, chemically-treated poultry.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: Pressing the reset button in Brussels. Here, at a Wednesday night dinner with NATO foreign ministers.
DPA

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: Pressing the reset button in Brussels. Here, at a Wednesday night dinner with NATO foreign ministers.

On Thursday, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Brussels as the Obama administration's first high-ranking visitor to the European Union capital, that issue will play no role whatsoever. The evening before, Clinton had already been welcomed at a festive "Trans-Atlantic Dinner." In addition to consultations with her NATO counterparts, she will also hold a photo op with top EU officials. She's even pencilled in some time to meet with young Europeans.

Clinton's bosses will be following her trail to Europe a short time later. According to current plans, Vice President Joe Biden will travel to meet with EU leadership next Tuesday. And on April 5, President Barack Obama himself will attend the EU-USA summit in the Czech Republic, current holder of the rotating EU presidency.

So will trans-Atlantic relations soon be sunshine and roses again? "The Americans also want to push the 'reset button' in this relationship, just as Biden has already announced for Russia," Stephen Szabo, director of the Washington-based Trans-Atlantic Academy, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's clear that Europe isn't at the top of the White House agenda because it's not a crisis region. But I believe we will experience a new form of consultation."

Obviously, the Europeans hope for a clearer distribution of roles. Sources within the EU say the idea now is to demonstrate exactly how the European Union can be useful to the Americans. Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for the EU's chief diplomat, Javier Solana, says the main items on the agenda are mutual approaches to all the world's most pressing problems: "Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, the financial crisis and climate change."

Conditions, of course, could be dictated by the Americans, since expectations for the new Obama administration are so high. Nevertheless demands for more European troops in southern Afghanistan have gone silent. With the recent decision to move 17,000 US troops to the war-torn region, the Americans seem willing to shoulder this burden alone -- at least for now. They will expect more help in other areas, though, like reconstruction or police training.

Heavier sanctions against Iran's nuclear program will also be on the Brussels agenda, as will the proposal for EU member states to absorb prisoners from Guantanamo. Washington may also seek financial help for civilian aid in Pakistan, where stability is seen as an essential element of any Afghanistan strategy.

"I can imagine that the Americans will want more money from EU member states for Pakistan," Dan Hamilton, director of the Trans-Atlantic Center at Johns Hopkins University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"Coordination Hasn't Improved Much"

The Americans may want to hear more ideas about strategy in the region, too. "So far the coordination hasn't improved very much," said Stefani Weiss, a Europe expert at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Brussels. She said the Americans, acting on their own, visited a number of crisis regions during the first weeks of the Obama administration. Now they will be consulting with the Europeans -- but only after the fact. "No one here has heard much so far about the new Afghanistan strategy," she said. "Many Europeans feel ignored."

Stephen Szabo sees an appropriate pragmatism in the Obama team's trans-Atlantic approach. "They want to listen, but they don't quite know who to listen to. There are many voices in Europe." For this reason, he says, the new administration is likely to stick closer to larger member states like Germany.

This posture could prove important for the question that will overshadow the ministers' meeting on Thursday -- the West's relationship to Russia. Clinton is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday in Geneva. A recent letter from the White House to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has moved this issue to the forefront. Obama suggested Washington would be willing to put an end to its missile defense project in Poland and the Czech Republic if Moscow agreed to help stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The Search for the Right Voices

Many experts believe Washington will look to Germany for support on this issue. Germany's ambassador in Washington, Klaus Scharioth, is highly sought after in conversations relating to Russia. But Szabo also sees a number of risks. "Washington is placing high expectations on Berlin and the Germans have a vested interest in a better relationship between Moscow and Washington. That is all good -- as long as all the parties speak to each other. But it will get complicated for Germany if the Russians refuse to talk or spoil the discussions."

Another potential problem is that parts of Europe could feel passed over if the future of the missile defense plan is decided by Moscow and Washington. Poland and the Czech Republic, wooed by the Bush administration and selected as sites for important installations in the missile defense shield, could feel particularly slighted. Indeed, Clinton will soon have to face questions from the Czech government.

Similarly, questions will arise about America's plans to deal with the economic crisis. There are ever louder calls from Europe for more international consultation on US economic stimulus and rescue packages. But there has, thus far, been little response from the White House -- even on Tuesday, when Obama hosted a visit from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Like the administration that proceeded it, enthusiasm in the Obama team for certain trans-Atlantic projects appears to be limited or lukewarm at best. Shortly ahead of Clinton's visit, the Europeans demonstratively held a meeting of high-ranking politicians in Brussels to discuss closer trans-Atlantic economic ties -- an idea backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel but which rapidly vanished from Washington's radar. Here too there has also been no change: Obama's team hasn't even officially announced a Washington coordinator for the project.

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