Trans-Atlantic Track Record When Will Obama Speak to Europe?

So far, the details of a European policy have been a non-existent issue in Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He's also come under criticism for allowing the Senate Foreign Relations Europe subcommittee to languish under his chairmanship. In a heated campaign against John McCain, few expect Europe to play a significant role in Obama's campaign.

By Steve Kettmann in Berlin


Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama: "At some point he will have to address what he has in mind with regard to trans-Atlantic relations."
AP

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama: "At some point he will have to address what he has in mind with regard to trans-Atlantic relations."

Since he wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this month, United States Senator Barack Obama has focused his attention on a series of tough speeches on the grim state of the American economy, directly assailing the economic policies of Republican John McCain as an extension of Bush and talking up his own proposals, including a proposed tax cut for middle-income families. The clear message: Obama is going to win or lose with an overwhelming focus on domestic fare.

What Obama pointedly did not do in his first days alone on the Democratic stage was to attempt to focus the attention of the US electorate on such difficult questions as how, in the wake of the disastrous Bush presidency, a new American administration can go beyond mere rhetorical good will and get down to the hard work of repairing relations with key European allies.

Obama has not emphasized new approaches to such difficult problems as encouraging Germany and other European allies to spend more on their militaries in order to ramp up their involvement in the perilous military campaign in Afghanistan, for example. Nor did he release records of his past European travel, despite a minor controversy late last year over his highly limited role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on Europe and related questioning over his failure to travel to Europe even one time as a Senator, despite recommendations from his own staff members that he do so. So far, at least, Europe has been almost completely off the Obama campaign's radar.

"At some point he will have to address what he has in mind with regard to trans-Atlantic relations," says Jackson Janes, director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington. "We have little to go on right now because trans-Atlantic relations are not going to help him win in November."

Obama has made one major foreign-policy speech since gaining the delegates he needs to score the nomination. Speaking before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, Obama said, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." Palestinian groups reacted to the nod to Israel with a fury pronounced enough to potentially complicate any Middle East peace negotiations in an Obama administration. To some, it was an indication that the outsized Obama-mania that is so widespread in European capitals may be tempered by a wave of at least mild skepticism as the race with McCain continues.

"Rightly he’s focused on domestic issues to get himself elected," Denis MacShane, a Labour Party member of the British parliament and former minister for Europe under Tony Blair, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But as he says in (his book) 'The Audacity of Hope,' there are times when America does have to act as the sheriff of the world, and he makes it clear America can’t be controlled by the United Nations. And, as we saw last week ... in promising a permanent undivided status for Jerusalem, he probably went beyond Israeli government policy."

"It’s going to be a very tricky general election with Obama having to guard his flank from McCain and the Bushies and the neocons all saying he’ll be flaky and soft and not defending national interests," he added. "World leadership is about values and instinct, and Obama has a good combination of both. But let us say that after the oxymoron of Bush’s leadership the last eight years, America’s standing in the world can only go up."

At this stage in the campaign, no one really expects Obama to articulate exactly how he will deal with European leaders. Gauging a future president’s likely performance in office is notoriously difficult. George W. Bush, now widely seen around the world as a symbol of American arrogance, ran in 2000 on a platform of being a uniter, not a divider, pledging, "If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us; if we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us."

To explore the likely future performance of candidates Obama and Clinton (while she was still in the race), Steve Clemons of the Washington, DC-based New America Foundation decided late last year to study closely how each handled their committee assignments as US Senators.

"I thought Hillary Clinton did not have the patience and that Obama was probably very involved in committee processes," said Clemons, who directs the Foundation’s American Strategy Program and previously worked in the Senate. "In fact I found the opposite. I watched videos of Superfund hearings and there was Clinton the whole time, all during the campaign, three or four times, asking questions. I went to find the Obama videos and there were none."

Clemons, who also writes a popular blog, was the first to publicize the fact that, despite receiving the plum assignment of chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on Europe after the November 2006 midterm elections, Senator Obama had not held a single policy hearing of this subcommittee, even though it could have offered a platform both for bolstering his foreign-policy credentials and for putting pressure on the Bush administration to back up its rhetoric about multilateralism with actual consultation and action.

"His subcommittee deals with Europe, with NATO, with various related political and security matters -- and he's got the gavel and can set the agenda," Clemons wrote in his first post on the subject on Dec. 17. "Given the stress NATO is experiencing today on many fronts -- from the question of Europe's evolving security identity, to NATO's deployments in Afghanistan, to the evolving question of how to deal with Russia, Kosovo, and other common challenges -- it seems inconceivable that Senator Obama would not want to highlight important policy concerns by way of hearings."

Clemons also found that Obama had not made a single visit to continental Europe as senator -- though he had visited Great Britain as part of a delegation.

"I had this interesting encounter at the time with one of Obama’s Europe advisers," Clemons told SPIEGEL ONLINE last week. "She said, 'I know. We were trying to get him to go to Europe and it just wasn’t a priority.'"

The Times of London followed up with an article quoting Clemons saying, "The major threats in the 21st century are changing but what is not changing is the vital necessity of Europe and the US collaborating in meeting those challenges with Europe, for instance, in the lead on dealing with Iran. This is a very disconcerting void in Obama’s profile." The article concluded: "Mr. Obama also met Mr. Blair twice in Washington, and Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French interior minister. But anecdotes are circulating in Washington about how he has turned down requests from other visiting foreign dignitaries, such as an Italian opposition leader who was told that the senator was in 'presidential mode' and only seeing leaders of countries."

When it comes to answering requests from European journalists seeking interviews with Obama, his campaign deputies are known to have responded in at least one instance with a terse, one-word e-mail: "No."

News about Obama’s subcommittee role and limited European travel gained wider circulation when Joe Conason wrote a column about it for Salon.com last December that was widely cited.

"Should Obama wonder whether he ought to have bothered with his subcommittee, he could ask his friendly rival Joe Biden (of the Democratic Party), who chaired the Europe subcommittee for many years during the Cold War," Conason wrote. "Biden effectively exploited the chairmanship to transform himself from a junior member into one of the Senate's most knowledgeable experts on arms control, nuclear weapons, European attitudes toward America and the Soviet Union, the European Union’s policies, and the role of NATO, which also comes under the subcommittee's mandate. As a result, Biden starred in Senate hearings on the SALT II arms treaties and eventually established himself as a leading national voice on foreign policy."

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