Obama will not be a soft touch for Europeans

Wed, Nov 12, 2008, 00:00

Barack Obama is the apparent incarnation of all that Europeans could wish for but in the end, he is the president-elect of the US and he will approach Europe seeking a greater commitment to sharing America's international burdens, writes Pat Cox

THE DEED is done. Barack Obama's improbable journey, his message of hope and his mantra of change have won the day in the most fascinating US presidential campaign in decades. History, hope and hype all find expression in its wake.

He has released great expectations at home and abroad. These cannot all be reconciled or realised, a fact recognised by the president-elect in his acceptance speech in Chicago. "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term."

Prioritising his objectives and managing expectations are a key early task. In the colour codes of the US election, red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, the EU, if its citizens had voted, would have been almost entirely blue. Europeans have high expectations of the young new president-elect.

George Bush, not least for economic reasons at home, leaves office as the most unpopular incumbent since polling began. America's reputation and credibility in Europe have declined in the Bush era.

The doctrine of pre-emptive strike, the conflation of the war on terror with the war in Iraq, the drift to unilateralism of the "if you are not with us you are against us" form of coalition building, the obscenity of Guantánamo Bay and the validation at the highest level of hostage taking through rendition, and of torture, have all served to bring America's standing to a new low.

Bill Clinton tried but failed to resolve the conflict in the Middle East. Until near the end of his second term Bush failed to try, to the frustration of European policymakers. One can add the absence of US engagement on climate change for almost the entire Bush mandate as an additional irritant. The neo-conservative baiting of the enlarged EU in its differentiation between new and old Europe rubbed Europe up the wrong way. Muscular American security preferences for missile defence arrangements with Poland and the Czech Republic and the proposed extension of Nato to include Ukraine and Georgia have added fuel to the fire. The short but sharp conflict between Georgia and Russia last August is an uneasy reminder of the risks of this visceral logic. Shared anxiety about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the spread of weapons of mass destruction has seen the US and EU on the same page as regards Iran, even if sometimes following a different text.

In spite of what these tensions suggest, the Bush legacy on EU-US relations is more nuanced. His second mandate was more open to outreach. EU-US dialogue deepened. Successive annual summits made considerable progress on transatlantic business dialogue, on extradition, and on regulatory co-operation. High-level dialogue has been initiated on climate change, clean energy and sustainable development, better late than never, and on the sensitivities surrounding the use of personal data.

EU-US economic interdependency has increased radically during the Bush years. Each side of the Atlantic respectively is the other's main trading partner, biggest source and host of foreign direct investment and largest contributor of "in-sourced" jobs to the other side. In EU-US terms foreign policy tension but economic progress are the hallmarks of the Bush years.

Obama promises a new deal and a new dawn. He is committed to withdrawing from Iraq, to ending detention in Guantánamo Bay, to banning torture and to fully engaging on the climate change agenda.

Instinctively he is an internationalist and multilateralist. He is cut, in European terms, from a more familiar east coast intellectual cloth. He is analytical and likely to bring a cool and cerebral capacity to dealing with complexity. His celebrity, with its message of change, carries a transformational potential not just for the US but globally also.

He is the apparent incarnation of all that Europeans could wish for but in the end he is the president-elect of the US. He necessarily will be guided, constrained and held to account first and foremost by how is perceived to have acted by his fellow citizens in the light of their interests, needs and preferences.

He will approach Europeans not just bearing the gifts of change but also inviting and expecting a new commitment to burden sharing. Speaking in Berlin last July he remarked; "My country and yours have a stake in seeing that Nato's first mission beyond Europe's borders is a success. America cannot do this alone."

He was speaking of Afghanistan. This will be an early, perhaps definitive, test of the relevance of Nato in the 21st century. How European states respond to Obama's certain request for more help will contribute to or diminish his capacity to hold the multilateralist line at home on security and defence.

Some intractable problems do not yield to diplomacy or to soft power remedies. America's European allies have a way of coming up short when it comes to hard power projection. The neo-cons had contempt for these perceived deficiencies and so decided to act unilaterally, preferring coalitions of the willing instead.

Pakistan, already a nuclear power, is one place where neither candidate in last week's US election was held in high esteem. It risks becoming a new fault line in the war on terror.

A fragile Iraq with its Shia, Sunni and Kurdish tensions offers no quick fix with or without early troop withdrawal and will demand ongoing international and not just American attention. Iran with its nuclear pretensions, its Hizbullah and Hamas links into Lebanon and the Gaza strip and its president's threat to wipe Israel off the face of the earth will continue to demand concerted efforts, as will the settlement of the core Middle Eastern Israeli/Palestinian question.

More Russian self-assertion as an energy superpower harbouring nostalgia for past glories and feeling or perceiving slights to its integrity will add to the complexity of finding durable multilateral settlements to these issues.

It remains an open question whether the 21st century will be an Asian century but the sum of the foreign policy parts on the president-elect's desk has a decidedly 19th century power political echo. In the end he will value European actions louder than words. A friendly president most likely will not prove to be a soft touch for Europeans.

Global leadership on climate change will become a more crowded space. The mood music will alter but even with an Obama presidency, the EU and the US instinctively will respond in different ways. Europe's preference for managing change through regulation finds its counterpart in US preferences for market driven solutions and technological fixes. Agreeing headline goals almost certainly will produce less friction than agreeing the means to achieve them.

The president-elect's first press conference was a sober and measured affair, stronger on the prose of power than the poetry of hope. It addressed the theme of tackling the economic crisis, clearly his first priority. He favours a stimulus package.

He will take office against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in generations, with record budget deficits and the financial and political legacy and burden of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The G20 initiative favoured by EU leaders to reform the international financial system suggests the possibility of a global order more open to new players and fit for the world of the 21st century. It could be the harbinger of a new system of governance that would retain and promote the benefits of globalisation, while making it accountable. A proposed 100 day deadline seems somewhat breathless in view of the fact that such a radical overhaul of international institutions, if it were to happen, would need the full engagement of the new US administration, which will not take office for 10 more weeks. It will be a fascinating insight into how far Obama's appetite for multilateral engagement will take him. It will reveal even more about the political appetite and constraints of Congress, where the Democrats enjoy a majority in both Houses.

Many were elected on the back of protectionist rhetoric. The president-elect himself was not averse to playing this card during the presidential primaries. There is a protectionist and interventionist mood abroad.

Obama's focus on possibly raising additional US tax on corporate profits earned overseas to promote more jobs at home could threaten unilateral abrogation of existing bilateral tax treaties with dire consequences for Ireland and very significant consequences for transatlantic economic relations.

What an irony it would be if the coming period reversed the hallmarks of the Bush years in EU-US terms by delivering foreign policy progress but economic policy tension.

Obama frequently quotes Abraham Lincoln who famously remarked that "you cannot fool all the people all the time". To paraphrase Lincoln for the present purpose "you cannot please all the people all the time". Whom will Barack Obama choose to displease? By this shall we know him and thereby will hang the tale of EU/US relations in the years to come.

Pat Cox was president of the European Parliament from 2002 to 2004 and served as a member of the parliament from 1989-2004. He is now a consultant for European Integration Solutions.

Tomorrow: Prof Patrick Honohan on the challenge of rebuilding the global financial order