It’s an article of faith that Barack Obama’s inauguration will usher in a new era of transatlantic comity.

  Indeed, The Atlantic‘s Robert Kaplan figures relations have nowhere to go but up:

Obama and Clinton are buying into a bottomed-out market vis-à-vis America’s position in the world. It is as if they will be buying stock after the market has crashed, and just at the point when a number of factors are already set in motion for a recovery. For President George W. Bush did not just damage America’s position in the world, he has also, over the past two years, quietly repositioned himself as a realist in foreign policy, and that, coupled with a bold new strategy in Iraq, known as the “surge,” has poised America for a diplomatic rebound, which the next administration will get the credit for carrying out.

Matthew Yglesias, a senior editor at the Center for American Progress, agrees wholeheartedly.  He believes Bush and top officials in the administration went out of their way to alienate our allies, both by engaging in policies contrary to our shared Western values and by treating them rudely.

Bush, for example, declined to send Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero a congratulatory message upon his election in 2004 (Zapatero did get one after his re-election in March 2008) and has perversely refused to hold a one-on-one meeting with him out of pique at Zapatero’s opposition to the Iraq War. Donald Rumsfeld pointlessly deepened U.S.-European divisions over Iraq by dismissing the governments that opposed the war as “Old Europe.”

Scottish journalist Alex Massie, though, isn’t so sure.  Sure, he acknowleges, Europeans seem to like Obama and to want improved relations.   But there’s still the matter of policy.   We differ markedly on how to proceed with NATO expansion, Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, and various other major issues.

Perhaps Obama really can persuade European public opinion. But since, as matters stand, no-one thinks there’s a military solution to the Afghan problem I’m not quite sure what Obama can offer to make the mission any more appealling. Put yourself in Danish or Portuguese or Italian shoes: what’s in it for you? Why would you join a mission no-one thinks is winnable? (Maybe a new strategy can change that, but that too is something that remains to be seen.) It isn’t simply Iraq; it’s the growing perception that many people feel they have little to know idea why, nearly seven years later, we’re still in Afghanistan. What are we actually doing there? What can we actually realistically hope to achieve?


It would be lovely to think that Obama can bring a new period of transatlantic harmony. But it just isn’t the case that American interests are necessarily the same as European interests. The Security Card trumped everything during the Cold War but these are changed times. And there were, in any case, always more differences than seemed the case then too, these days they’re much clearer to see. A new President may find it difficult to change that. Or, to put it another way, he may need to give something up himself to advance American interests in other areas.

Dan Drezner, a Tufts political scientist, thinks the differences overblown, particularly with regard to Afghanistan:

I think a lot of European foreign policy elites do see the security and foreign policy benefits of doubling down in Afghanistan — if anything, events in Mumbai merely reinforce that belief.  Their concern has always been with the lack of U.S. focus and resources in the region.  By committing greater resources — which has been Obama’s message for some time now — I think he can square the circle with the Europeans.

Massie responds that, while he concurs as to the convergence of elite opinion, there’s the matter of public support.

I suspect European public opinion has soured on or, to be more generous, is simply confused by a conflict that drags on with little sign of progress, let alone an endgame. Now it’s certainly possible that Obama can leverage his popularity and the idea of a fresh start and lead by example in Afghanistan. Jim Jones’ experience with NATO and Europe Command should help – though of course Jones will be familiar with the limits of what NATO can realistically achieve, as well as its potential.

Kaplan’s point about fresh starts and that relations have already begun to turn around is right.  Still, I share Massie’s belief that issues, more so than personalities, will ultimately matter.   As I wrote shortly before the election,

America’s relationship with Old Europe, particularly Germany and France, declined in the early years of the Bush administration, not because he was a conservative and those countries had leaders of the Left, but because Bush was Hell bent on leading the Alliance into a war that neither   Gerhard Schröder nor Jacques Chirac had any intention of fighting.  Conversely, American expectation of dramatically improved relations owing to the emergence of right-of-center Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy were misplaced; to the extent things got better it was owing to a convergence of views on Iraq and regression to the mean.

Countries won’t send their troops into harm’s way simply because they find our new president pleasant and likable.  Ultimately, they’re going to be much more swayed by cold calculation of what’s in the best interest of their country and their own political careers. 

Furthermore, I’ll predict that Obama’s foreign policy will be much more similar to Bush’s than widely believed.  For one thing, the Bush policy that Yglesias wishes to see changed has long since disappeared, quietly replaced, as Kaplan notes, with a more traditional Realist approach.   For another, Obama has signalled rather strongly with his foreign policy appointments that he’s going to be a pragmatist, not a wild-eyed liberal.

More importantly than any of that, though, Obama, like Bush, will be president of the United States.  While there will be shades of difference in how they see the world, he will, like his predecessor, see it through American eyes and from the perspective of American interests and American domestic politics.  

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: James Joyner