President Obama’s recent trip to the Middle East and Europe offered a clear contrast between the past and present priorities of U.S. foreign policy. Obama’s highly scrutinized and substantive trip to Saudi Arabia and Egypt reflects the fact that the greater Middle East is the strategic center of gravity for current U.S. foreign policy. By contrast, Obama’s stops in Germany and France largely focused on commemorating a bygone era when Europe dominated American strategic thinking. Thanks to Europe’s limited capabilities, absent leadership, and internal focus, the Continent is at risk of becoming a nuisance rather than an ally of consequence to an administration seeking serious partners to help tackle serious challenges.
The president’s latest overseas trip was rich in symbolism and meaning. Whether it involved visiting the land of the two holy mosques, quoting from the Koran at Cairo, rebuking those who would deny one of humanity’s greatest crimes, or commemorating fallen American heroes at Omaha Beach, the trip involved many detailed, choreographed moments. From a broader perspective, though, the agenda conspicuously symbolized Europe’s decline in the pecking order of U.S. foreign policy. The president went to the Middle East to chart a new course forward with the Muslim world and work towards Middle East peace and a non-nuclear Iran. By the time he arrived in Europe, Obama seemed interested in little else than commemorating Europe’s history and the important role the U.S. played in helping the Old World overcome its violent past.
Just as the president and his team worked to ensure the highest publicity for his speech in Cairo and to offer the impression of maximal engagement toward the Muslim world, Obama frustrated his European colleagues with his aloof manner and his avoidance of official functions in Paris and Berlin. He kept his distance from Europe’s big three as if Angela Merkel’s political paralysis, Nicolas Sarkozy’s low approval ratings, and Gordon Brown’s malaise were somehow contagious diseases.
While the world press analyzed the merits and potential implications of each phrase of Obama’s momentous Cairo speech, the European media instead focused on reading the body language of the cool U.S. president with his awkward European counterparts to determine whether or not they really get along. The poor French press, deprived of what surely would have been the most glamorous state dinner at the Elysée Palace since Camelot won their hearts in 1961, could report on little other than what was missing from President Obama’s romantic date with Michelle at a restaurant in the VIIth Arrondissement (most notably, wine and the president and first lady of France).
The follies and humor aside, Europe is at the risk of becoming little more than a nuisance and necessary formality to an administration in search of allies capable of helping solve serious problems, regardless of their location on the globe or historical links to America. Obama has now completed two trips to Europe, and he so far has little of substance to show for his efforts. He must be wondering whether his attempts to engage the Europeans and rebuild relationships frayed by the Bush administration are worth his time and effort when he has so much on his plate.
Unfortunately, the president has few reliable partners in Europe. The faithful Brits — led by a dead man walking in Brown — appear exhausted by years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and a ruinous financial meltdown. Merkel is constrained by a fractious coalition and the prospects of September elections, not to mention her own recent frustration with the American approach of dealing with the financial crisis and its effects. Sarkozy has emerged as the most important and capable ally in Europe, but the cerebral U.S. President appears ill at ease with his hyperactive and unpredictable French counterpart.
Europe offers little of substance at the multi-lateral level either. Fundamentally, the EU has not resolved the question of whether it wants to be an actor of consequence in a multipolar world order or just a large Switzerland, to borrow an insightful quote from former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine. For the moment, Europe’s inward focus and clunky mechanisms indicate the latter. The comically dysfunctional Czech Presidency of the EU surely failed to gain the attention of the new President, save for when the departing Czech prime minister called Obama’s domestic stimulus plan a “way to hell” ust prior to the G-20 meetings in April. As he tries to fall asleep in the dingy police barracks that will reportedly house him at the earthquake-stricken town of L’Aquila, Italy for the now-irrelevant G-8 forum, Obama will no doubt wonder why he bothered to make the trip. Perhaps the various leaders of the 20th century’s leading economies can vote on who has the best Chinese-funded stimulus plan.
The fastest way for Europe’s leaders to regain the favor and attention of the popular U.S. pesident is to be of assistance on questions of major importance to American foreign policy. It is little secret that Middle East peace, a non-nuclear Iran, and enhanced stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan are three of the Obama administration’s greatest foreign policy priorities. This pragmatic U.S. administration is looking for allies who can help in any way, no matter their ideology or traditional importance to the U.S. If Europe can find a way to be of greater assistance in resolving any of these three monumental challenges, Obama will certainly take notice – and maybe even show a little affection.
Jeff Lightfoot is assistant director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.