From Mania to Mistrust Europe's Obama Euphoria Wanes

Europe was ecstatic when Barack Obama got elected, but the enthusiasm has dampened since he took office in January. On the eve of his first visit to Europe as president, some here are wondering how seriously he takes the Continent.

By in Washington


Some skepticism has crept in to European feelings about US President Barack Obama.
AFP

Some skepticism has crept in to European feelings about US President Barack Obama.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the new director of policy planning at the US State Department, was sitting on the stage at a conference on trans-Atlantic relations in Brussels. "Europe has a phone number," she said, and there was a satisfied murmuring of approval among her mainly European audience. Everyone remembers the famous remark by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who complained in the 1970s that he didn't know who to call when he wanted to talk to Europe.

But when the moderator asked Slaughter if she had that number on her, she was evidently caught off guard. "I have three," she replied. The hall erupted into loud laughter.

Slaughter quickly corrected herself, explaining that Europe was simply organized differently, with an EU "troika" representing the bloc on foreign policy issues, but that the EU was still able to conduct an effective foreign policy. Nevertheless, the exchange reflected a degree of uncertainty in relations with Europe ahead of US President Barack Obama's first major foreign trip.

When Obama arrives in London on Tuesday for the start of his one-week visit to Europe, he'll come as a friend, but as one who is still in some ways a stranger. Europe backed his election campaign more enthusiastically than most other parts of the world. But the White House has been too preoccupied coping with domestic crises to devote much attention to this region in the first two months of Obama's presidency.

Obama's team has been trying to paper this over by repeating their pledges to restore America's reputation in the world and in Europe in particular. They have promised that Obama will listen to Europe. And he does indeed plan to talk extensively to European leaders over the next week.

  • At the G-20 summit in London, he will meet with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, opposition leader David Cameron and Queen Elizabeth II.
  • He will hold talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Kehl and Strasbourg.
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel will host a dinner for him and other NATO leaders in Baden-Baden.

But despite the busy schedules, it has become clear that the most contentious issues have been shelved. First and foremost, reflecting an at-times intense trans-Atlantic debate in recent months, no country will be forced to make extra cash available for economic stimulus measures. In particular, the US had wanted Germany to devote more funds, but US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told his German counterpart, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, that Washington has no interest in turning the summit into a vote on the issue.

Unfamiliar Territory

Afghanistan too has been put on the back burner. Obama won't be asking for more European troops in the fight against the Taliban. The new White House line is that every partner should contribute what they are willing and able to provide -- though it is hard to see this about-face as anything less than a loss of faith in the Europeans.

But it's plain to see that Obama's team has yet to become accustomed to dealing with Europe. And a worry voiced during the campaign has returned: that Obama -- who spent his childhood years in Indonesia and who has shown a lot of interest in Africa -- knows little about Europe.

Even the British, proud of their "special relationship" with Washington, have been wondering why Gordon Brown was handed nothing more than a box of DVDs as a present during his recent visit. Brussels was pleased that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton devoted so much time to her recent trip there, but the fact that she chose to visit Asia first has been noted. And European journalists are disappointed that Obama likely won't be granting them pre-trip interviews.

Teething Troubles

Compounding the problem, say many, is that US ministries are understaffed as a result of the drawn-out process of appointing people to top positions -- a shortcoming that has been especially noticeable in diplomatic appointments. The designated Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Phil Gordon, has yet to be approved by the Senate, and important ambassador's posts including the one in Berlin remain unfilled. "There's a list of up to 12 people circulating but the decision will take time," said a German diplomatic source.

"It's unbelievable how few people there are to talk to on the American side," said one high-ranking member of the German delegation who recently visited Washington to discuss the future of General Motors subsidiary Opel.

The British too have been complaining that their calls aren't getting returned because the Americans lack staff. One German diplomat said the dimensions of Germany's economic stimulus package had to be explained in person to Obama's economic advisor Lawrence Summers because he lacked advisors on European affairs. He had apparently only read about the German measures in the media.

The White House counters by saying that it has put trans-Atlantic relations on a completely new footing in the last two months with the planned closure of Guantanamo, a clear distancing from torture, a fresh start on combating global warming and by moving towards European thinking on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.

Still, the Obama skeptics in Europe are having a field day. "The notion that Europe is going to rally around this administration is being exploded," Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Post. Indeed, a feeling of skepticism regarding Obama's new Afghanistan strategy and his proposals for solving the financial crisis has been making itself felt.

When it comes to the European people, though, Obama remains a beacon of hope and he can expect a hero's welcome when he arrives. "Obama can reach out to the European public to create a different dynamic, to create a political will to do more," said Karen Donfried, executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "He has the ability to reach the public in a way George W Bush did not."

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