How Obama lost Europe

Will Obama be "the American president who presided over the end of the West as a political community?"

From Mark Leonard, Foreign Policy:  [President Barack] Obama’s stellar personal ratings in Europe hide the fact that the Western alliance has never loomed smaller in the imagination of policymakers on either side of the Atlantic.

Seen from Washington, there is not a single problem in the world to be looked at primarily through a transatlantic prism. Although the administration looks first to Europeans as partners in any of its global endeavors — from dealing with Iran’s nuclear program to stopping genocide in Syria — it no longer sees the European theater as its core problem or seeks a partnership of equals with Europeans. It was not until the eurozone looked like it might collapse — threatening to bring down the global economy and with it Obama’s chances of reelection — that the president became truly interested in Europe.

Conversely, Europeans have never cared less about what the United States thinks. Germany, traditionally among the most Atlanticist of European countries, has led the pack. Many German foreign-policy makers think it was simply a tactical error for Berlin to line up with Moscow and Beijing against Washington on Libya. But there is nothing accidental about the way Berlin has systematically refused even to engage with American concerns over German policy on the euro. . . .

On both sides of the Atlantic, the ties that held the alliance together are weakening. On the American side, Obama’s biography links him to the Pacific and Africa but not to the old continent. His personal story echoes the demographic changes in the United States that have reduced the influence of Americans of European origin. Meanwhile, on the European side, the depth of the euro crisis has crowded out almost all foreign policy from the agenda of Europe’s top decision-makers. The end of the Cold War means that Europeans no longer need American protection, and the U.S. financial crisis has led to a fall in American demand for European products (although U.S. exports to Europe are at an all-time high). . . .

To Washington’s eternal frustration, however, Europeans have not put their energies into becoming a full partner on global issues. For all the existential angst of the euro crisis, Europe is not as weak as people think it is. It still has the world’s largest market and represents 17 percent of world trade, compared with 12 percent for the United States. Even in military terms, the EU is the world’s No. 2 military power, with 21 percent of the world’s military spending, versus 5 percent for China, 3 percent for Russia, 2 percent for India, and 1.5 percent for Brazil, according to Harvard scholar Joseph Nye. But, ironically for a people who have embraced multilateralism more than any other on Earth, Europeans have not pooled their impressive economic, political, and military resources. And with the eurozone’s need to resolve the euro crisis, the EU may split into two or more tiers — making concerted action even more difficult. As a result, European power is too diffuse to be much of a help or a hindrance on many issues.

On the other hand, Obama’s United States — although equally committed to liberal values — thinks that the best way to safeguard American interests and values is to craft a multipartner world. On the one hand, Obama continues to believe that he can transform rising powers by integrating them into existing institutions (despite much evidence to the contrary). On the other, he thinks that Europe’s overrepresentation in existing institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is a threat to the consolidation of that order. This is leading a declining America to increasingly turn against Europe on issues ranging from climate change to currencies. The most striking example came at the 2009 G-20 in Pittsburgh, when Obama worked together with the emerging powers to pressure Europeans to give up their voting power at the IMF. As Walter Russell Mead, the U.S. international relations scholar, has written, "[I]ncreasingly it will be in the American interest to help Asian powers rebalance the world power structure in ways that redistribute power from the former great powers of Europe to the rising great powers of Asia today."

But the long-term consequence of the cooling of this unique alliance could be the hollowing out of the world order that the Atlantic powers have made. . . .

Even in the General Assembly, the balance of power is shifting: 10 years ago, China won 43 percent of the votes on human rights in the United Nations, far behind Europe’s 78 percent. But in 2010-11, the EU won less than 50 percent to China’s nearly 60 percent, according to research by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Rather than being transformed by global institutions, China’s sophisticated multilateral diplomacy is changing the global order itself.

As relative power flows Eastward, it is perhaps inevitable that the Western alliance that kept liberty’s flame alight during the Cold War and then sought to construct a liberal order in its aftermath is fading fast. It was perhaps inevitable that both Europeans and Americans should fail to live up to each other’s expectations of their respective roles in a post-Cold War world. After all, America is still too powerful to happily commit to a multilateral world order (as evidenced by Congress’s reluctance to ratify treaties). And Europe is too physically safe to be willing to match U.S. defense spending or pool its resources. What is surprising is that the passing of this alliance has not been mourned by many on either side. The legacy of Barack Obama is that the transatlantic relationship is at its most harmonious and yet least relevant in 50 years. Ironically, it may take the election of someone who is less naturally popular on the European stage for both sides to wake up and realize just what is at stake.

Mark Leonard is co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the first pan-European think tank. You can follow him on Twitter @markhleonard (photo: Gadling)

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