A series of discordant columns over the weekend makes it clear that a new American president has not been a magic fix for the transatlantic relationship.  Indeed, the global financial crisis has exacerbated differences, not just between America and Europe but within Europe as well.


Writing in the Washington Post, William Drozdiak, president of the American Council on Germany, warns that, “suddenly, all the gains of the past decades are threatening to implode as Eastern Europe’s economic vulnerability in the current financial crisis raises the specter of a new East-West divide, underscored by the nationalist animosities that have led to calamity in the past.” After several paragraphs detailing the economic crisis facing the newly democratized states, he cites Czech President Vaclav Klaus’ recent outburst as “tapping into a certain rejectionism among East Europeans who ask why, after their countries’ long struggle for independence, they should now give up their sovereignty in favor of an ephemeral quest for European unity.” 

He notes that the sharpest divide is over Russia: “The West is willing to mollify Moscow’s desire to regain superpower status and wants to cooperate in building oil and gas pipelines. But the East fears that this would give Russia more leverage and eventually allow it to dominate Europe’s energy supplies — fears that were stoked this winter when Russia temporarily cut off natural gas delivery to Ukraine in a pricing dispute.”

Ultimately, Drozdiak fears, these pressures could cause “Europe’s dream of unity” to “disentegrate once and for  all.”

Denis MacShane, formerly Tony Blair’s minister for Europe and now a Labour MP, takes to the pages of Newsweek to sound that call that, while Europe is excited about Obama’s arrival on the scene, they’re also worried about “the first president in decades with no experience or knowledge of Europe.”  He notes that, “His predecessor had a father who was an East Coast Atlanticist, while Bill Clinton was an Oxford-educated Rhodes scholar who played Europe like a violin.”   

Moreover, he echoes Drozdiak’s concern that, “Instead of a united European approach, there is a cacophony of voices as European leaders spend more time complaining about each other than finding common solutions to propose to the new president.”  Rather than focus on the East-West divide, he highlights the sharp differences between the Big 3 leaders of France, Germany, and the UK on the economic crisis.

Rarely has Europe been so at sixes and sevens, so disunited, so quarrelsome on economic, security and foreign-policy issues. Pity Obama. He basked in the glow of some 200,000 Germans and their roaring applause when he spoke in Berlin last summer, as if the candidate were a new “Ich bin ein Berliner” JFK. European politicians of left and right claim to be their local Obama, and “Yes, we can” is the most overused cliché on European politicians’ lips. Yet more than popularity, what he really needs is a united Europe. But instead of a Mozart symphony or a Beethoven “Ode to Joy”—the unity of Enlightenment culture—he is getting a cacophony of different voices, screeching at each other. Little wonder if he decides to tune out.

Indeed, he closes, “Why should Obama do Europe’s heavy lifting when European leaders no longer aspire to reshape their own continent?”

Finally, Nile Gardiner, director of the Thatcher Center at Heritage, questions the future of the Special Relationship in The Telegraph.

The Anglo-American alliance is being weakened on several fronts, from falling levels of UK defence spending and the gutting of Britain’s armed forces by the Labour government, to the gradual erosion of British sovereignty in Europe and the rise of a European Union defence identity, now being backed by Washington. It is also threatened by apathy and indifference towards the UK on the part of the new U.S. administration, as well as by mounting American protectionism.


The White House is already recalibrating it as a “special partnership” not a “special relationship”, a subtle play on words which indicates a shift away from a decades-long policy of according Britain a unique status as America’s most important ally. Obama himself has seemingly little attachment to the alliance, and has never even mentioned it in a major policy speech.

Gardiner signals British resentment at recent overtures to France, including trading command of two prestige NATO posts for the return to full participation in the Alliance.  “This would,” Gardiner contends, “give Paris an extraordinary degree of power and influence within NATO, out of all proportion to its actual military role in Alliance operations, which is minimal.”

He is also rather flummoxed by Obama’s efforts to look to the EU rather than NATO or the UK as a military partner:

There is no evidence to suggest that Europe is capable of shouldering the burden of global leadership with America. The European Union is a grandiose emperor with no clothes, and its track record in confronting dictatorial regimes such as Iran has been a dismal failure. The EU is obsessed with challenging American global pre-eminence rather than working with the United States, and the European Project is ultimately all about building a counter-weight to American world leadership.

None of these sour sentiments should derail the Obama administration’s efforts to repair and strengthen America’s relations with Europe, of course.  There has arguably not been a time in the postwar period when transatlantic cooperation has been more vital.  

But it’s useful to be reminded from time to time that George W. Bush’s demeanor was not the sole obstacle to an effective working relationship.  Indeed, “Europe” is far from a monolith and its leaders, too, have some responsibility for the partnership. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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