This month’s G-8 Summit in Italy marked President Obama’s third visit to Europe in the first six months of his Presidency.

This unprecedented mileage across the Atlantic at the start of an American Presidency is a concrete demonstration of the possibilities of the transatlantic partnership under the Obama Administration. Against the backdrop of the Administration’s emphasis on consultations and multilateralism, and Obama’s tremendous popularity throughout Europe, the future of U.S-European relations appears bright.

Europe, however, runs the risk of taking this partnership for granted. If the Administration’s investment in Presidential attention toward the continent is not met with a substantive response from Europe’s leaders on the issues at the top of Obama’s agenda, the new U.S. Administration may come to conclusions about the limited role Europe can or is willing to play on international security challenges. Already many in Washington are wondering what Europe is bringing to the table after President Obama’s first two visits to Europe which were heavy on symbolism and light on substance. After coming home with little to show from NATO and U.S-EU Summits in April, President Obama is facing the question of whether he can translate all the goodwill he enjoys in Europe into concrete action.

Many in Europe’s largest capitals are delighted by the degree of similarities in strategic outlook between themselves and Obama’s Washington. They tend to see the results of last year’s U.S. elections as the Americans adopting European views of the leading foreign policy challenges. Indeed, they recognize the significance of Obama visiting Europe three times in six months. This perception, however, is leading some in Europe to conclude that the onus is not on them to act; rather, America now sees the world as Europe does, and will act as many in Europe have longed hoped, meaning there is no great need for Europe to change or advance policy.

As a reality check, it is important for Europeans not to overestimate Obama’s European travels as a sign of priority placed on Europe within the Administration. It’s important to remember that Obama had no choice in his first visit to Europe or his upcoming trip – with G-20, NATO and G-8 summits scheduled well before the U.S. Presidential election last November.

And the second visit to Europe, centered around the commemoration of D-Day, served to sharply contrast the substance and salience of Obama’s stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt versus the photo shoots of his visits to Germany and France (visits preceded by press reporting on personalities rather than substance as European media focused on the personal relationships between Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy with President Obama). Furthermore, the Obama Administration has not opted to add any medium or small European countries to this Presidential itinerary, rather adding Turkey on the fist trip, adding the Middle East to the second, and Russia and Ghana to the third trip to Europe. While there is smart strategic sense in this itinerary, these decisions further underscore the trips to Europe as being part of the required international calendar rather than the discretionary strategic decisions of the White House. These trips also illustrate the new Administration’s foreign policy emphasis on big powers, which means Central and Eastern Europe in particular are likely to receive less U.S. attention than they have in recent years.

President Obama’s first substantive interaction with European leaders in April at the G-20, NATO and U.S-EU Summits produced results which surprised many in Washington who thought the American President’s popularity would translate into greater European action. In London, France and Germany essentially led the rebuff of the American emphasis on stimulus policies within the G-20.

The subsequent NATO summit in Strasbourg-Kehl was an appropriate celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Alliance, and marked France’s return to the NATO integrated military structure. The summit also provided the Obama Administration an early opportunity to stress its commitment to consultations within the Alliance, and to bridge differences among the Allies on issues such as Europe’s East and Russia. However, regarding Obama’s top priority at the summit – Afghanistan – European NATO members failed to match America’s recommitment. NATO allies agreed conceptually on the need for a comprehensive, integrated regional strategy, but did not back up that strategy practically with major new civilian or military contributions. And the effort to bridge differences has only papered over underlying divisions among European members on issues such as Russia. Furthermore, the signature achievement of France’s return to the NATO military structure was an initiative developed prior to the change of administration. Nonetheless, the symbolism of solidarity was sufficient at this stage of a new American Administration, and the Summit did launch a serious process to develop a new roadmap for the Alliance, or a new Strategic Concept, to be completed by the time NATO leaders meet again at the end of next year in Lisbon.

Similarly, the U.S.-EU Summit in Prague was unfortunately lacking of substance. It was important as an expression of respect and partnership with the EU, as well as significant in that it added a Central European nation to the President’s itinerary. The Swedes now face the challenge of ensuring that a European Union whose leading members are distracted by domestic politics is able to develop a substantive agenda with the United States and achieve significant accomplishments at the next U.S.-EU Summit in Washington in November. The trick is to ensure such a summit actually advances new initiatives and new policies rather than limiting its outcomes to positions which are already agreed within the EU and advance no new territory. This way of coordinating EU business internally has had the impact over the years of making the U.S.-EU Summits less than consequential international gatherings.

As Europe looks forward to working closely with the Obama Administration, it is no secret what the United States’ top priorities will be: Afghanistan/Pakistan, global economic recovery, peace in the Middle East, Iran, North Korea as well as the domestic priorities which will dominate this fall: health care reform and energy policy. The transatlantic relationship is not a priority without a purpose; rather it is important because of the potential the relationship offers to be the most effective partnership the United States has in working on the most difficult issues on the global agenda.

Europe is indeed already providing leadership on the global economic crisis – from its immediate response to laying the international regulatory foundation to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Europe is also leading the global debate on climate. But it is providing less leadership on the trickiest international security challenges dominating the new American President’s attention. Europe should not take action on Obama’s priorities because doing so is important to the United States. Americans hope that Europeans share many of the same priorities on the international stage and see it as being in Europe’s interest to act on these issues.

Such a line of argument plays out most significantly on Afghanistan. Washington does not want Europe to step up with greater resources and resolve in Afghanistan simply because it is important to the United States. American policymakers want to see Europe act more decisively in Afghanistan because Europeans leaders share the same sense that it is in our collective interests to succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Europeans so excited about this Administration should not just sit back and watch renewed American leadership from the sidelines. That approach risks taking for granted the transatlantic partnership. Rather, Europeans should be working within the EU, NATO and bilaterally to determine how best to cooperate with the Untied States to advance our shared interests and values around the world, beginning with those issues at the top of the global agenda. If Europe is passive in this effort, Europeans run the risk of looking across the Atlantic in a year or two from now and wondering what went wrong to cause Europe to be a low priority for the Obama Administration.

Damon Wilson is director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program.  He served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council from 2007 to 2009.  This essay was written in February and appeared today in Euro-Atlantic Quarterly, a publication of the Slovak Atlantic Commission.   

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