Pierre Vimont, France’s ambassador to the United States, noted at an Atlantic Council event discussing next week’s NATO summit, that President Obama and his administration have made very strong efforts to signal how they view America’s relationship with China, Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world but has not yet let it be known how he views the transatlantic relationship.


That the ambassador of America’s oldest ally is unsure of where Europe stands is not good news. 

To be sure, Obama has been in the White House just slightly over two months and he has been, shall we say, rather busy with two ongoing wars, a global financial crisis, and other pressing concerns.  One hopes that Europe is so far down the list of priorities simply because the president takes the strength of the relationship for granted and figures that giving it short shrift while putting out fires will be forgiven. Still, you’d think he’d have found time to send a card.  Or perhaps some DVDs.

Regardless, his visit to Europe next week to attend the G20 Summit in London (April 2) and the 60th Anniversary NATO Summit in Strasbourg-Kehl (April 3-4) will provide an opportunity to make known his view of the future of US-European relations.  

On NATO, it seems, Obama and his team have preemptively abandoned the idea of asking Europe to commit more troops to the mission in Afghanistan, correctly presuming a negative answer would be forthcoming.  Instead, they’ve shifted to asking for more money and materiel support, which are more politically feasible. 

But what of larger issues? 

What is the new administration’s view of the Alliance’s strategic concept?   Vimont reiterated France’s opposition to a “global NATO,” a pet project of Ivo Daalder, Obama’s NATO ambassador nominee.  His German counterpart, Klaus Scharioth, was more coy on the point.   Where does Obama stand?  Will he press to continue to expand NATO’s readiness to engage in out-of-area operations?  Or will he pursue a more modest role?

There has been some signaling that Obama would actually prefer to deal with the EU rather than NATO on security issues.   Vimont and Scharioth see NATO and the European Security and Defense Policy as mutually reinforcing rather than competing institutions.  What says Obama?

What about arms control?  Missile defense?  NATO enlargement?  The administration will have to show its hand on all of these contentious issues.

Of course,  Obama may be more interested in his other meeting in Europe next week, the G20 summit in London. Given the difficulty of achieving consensus on the financial crisis in Washington, Brussels, or any of Europe’s capitals, that one may pose even more questions.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.