SPIEGEL: Mr. Szabo, what changes should we Europeans, especially Germans, expect from the new American president after the November election?
Stephen Szabo: Initially, the election will mean an improvement in trans-Atlantic relations, regardless of who wins. That's the first good news. Even the Bush administration realized it had made mistakes and it has already been trying to repair the relationship. But the Europeans had already made up their minds about Bush, and they're not going to change them, no matter what he does. The Europeans will certainly try to reach out to the new administration in order to make relations a success.
SPIEGEL: So you're expecting something akin to a love fest?
Szabo: It needs to be clear to the Europeans that the new US government, especially if it is Democratic, will have very high expectations.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Szabo: The Democrats will do all the things the Europeans have long been demanding. They will say: "We are more like you. We are multilateral. We believe in international law. And we are going to close Guantanamo." In return, they are going to expect a reaction from Europe -- with the expectation that Europe take on more responsibility in Kosovo and, especially, in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan issue is the one that concerns me most.
SPIEGEL: Are there differences between the Democratic and Republican stances on the issue of Afghanistan?
Szabo: No, I don't think so because they all feel that Afghanistan is the "right war."
SPIEGEL: On what issues do the Democratice and Republican positions diverge the most?
Szabo: I think the Europeans would be very unhappy with John McCain's approach to the Iran issue -- his line is very similar to Bush's. The Democrats would be more inclined to address the issue using the European approach of increased sanctions rather than a military option.
SPIEGEL: Where do you see the greatest potential for conflict between Germany and the US?
Szabo: We could see some problems on the issue of Russia. The Germans have strategic interests -- the issue of natural gas supplies, for example. But in the US, there isn't much of a pro-Russia lobby in either party. Instead, everybody is more likely to be critical of Russia because of its human rights record and to try to apply more pressure. That could put Germany in a more difficult position.
SPIEGEL: What role does Germany play globally from the perspective of the US government?
Szabo: It is getting harder and harder to isolate the German-American friendship from the broader European-American friendship. Indeed, it is hard to think of a bilateral agenda anymore -- except, perhaps, on the issue of Russia. Germany is important because it is central in the EU and in NATO. That is not the case of either France or Britain. Britain is central to NATO, but not to the EU, while France is central to the EU, but not to NATO. Neither country plays a central role in both organizations.
SPIEGEL: The Democrats have called in the election campaign for a move away from free trade, even discussing a renegotiation of the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Szabo: These efforts are directed primarily at Mexico and China. What we are going to see is the issue of protectionism, but it will not be directed at Europe. Indeed, we have a lot in common when it comes to defending ourselves from low-wage countries like China.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How will the next US government deal with the issue of Iraq?
Szabo: The Democrats are committed to withdrawing substantially and they will do that. I don't know how the Europeans will feel about that
SPIEGEL: because an overhasty retreat in Iraq could lead to a spiral of violence and chaos?
Szabo: Yes, but it's a simple fact that the American public doesn't want this war. It has lost its democratic legitimacy. If the Democrats win the election, they will have to pull out fairly quickly -- otherwise this will become their war, just like Vietnam became Nixon's war. They want to avoid that. The big issue will be: How weak will the US be after Iraq?
SPIEGEL: To what extent have the Americans actually lost power?
Szabo: The US, in many respects, is not what it used to be -- it is no longer a hegemon. And that's where you can see the differences between Clinton and Obama. A lot of Clinton people believe, as Madeleine Albright likes to say, that we are still an indispensable nation. But the US is much weaker than it was before the Iraq war in many ways. Just look at our budget deficit. That will also create a necessity for us to work together with our allies. I think Obama is more likely to do that than Clinton because he is from a different generation.
SPIEGEL: So you think that Germany and other European countries should be setting their hopes on a President Obama and the foreign policy he would bring to the table?
Szabo: Obama was socialized after the Cold War. During the election, there's been all this talk about experience. But experience with what kind of world? Obama is much more in tune with Europeans because many of them also grew up in this post-Cold War period -- including many young top European politicians, like British Foreign Minister David Miliband, for example. That's why the Germans and Europeans would probably get along best with Obama.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: On what issues do you think we would see the greatest changes?
Szabo: Obama has made it very clear that he's willing to talk to everybody. He's willing to engage Iran, and he's even willing to engage Cuba. He's willing to talk to people he doesn't like, and this is a more European point of view. He understands that the US cannot just dominate. He's also not a black politician, per se -- he's really post racial.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But isn't the exact opposite happening in the Democratic primaries at the moment? Aren't people voting based on race, gender, class and age?
Szabo: Yes, that's the problem. If the Democrats lose this election, they'll lose it because they got so hung up on identity politics.
Interview conducted by Cordula Meyer.