Barack Obama has headed to Europe for a few days of summitry, marking the new president’s first visit to that continent since taking office. In all likelihood, it will also mark the beginning of the end of the unreasonable expectations for a sudden transformation of transatlantic relations.
The Europeans have already accepted the fact that not much will be accomplished at the G20 Summit and the 60th Anniversary NATO Summit will be mostly a celebration. On this side of the Pond, as Alex Massey notes with some bemusement, prominent American pundits Michael Tomasky, Ezra Klein, and Paul Krugman are lamenting the fact that the Europeans won’t “do as they’re told” even though we’ve done as they hoped and elected Obama. He’s overstating for effect, of course, but all three are worried that the Europeans, and especially the Germans, won’t do their part in solving the world financial crisis. Tomasky, a self-professed liberal, even jokes that “Rumsfeld was right” on his infamous Old Europe-New Europe line.
Once upon a time – and not so long ago neither – Democrats thought it was important for friends to speak candidly to friends and stand up for what they thought was right. Now? Not so much. Now friends must remember that their independent analysis of the economic troubles afflicting the globe counts for nothing and they should fall quietly into line and accept their marching orders from Washington.
As I say, how times change. We’ve swapped a military and foreign policy sense of imperial entitlement for an economic one. How refreshing!
What if the Americans are right, however? Well, maybe they are. But what if they’re wrong? Is it really necessary for every country to adopt identical responses to the current difficulties? How likely is it that there can be a global one-size-fits-all answer?
UPI editor emeritus Martin Walker, a conservative and (last I checked) a Brit quips, “So much for the so-called Obama effect; this was the supposed eagerness of the EU countries to celebrate the departure of the Bush administration with fervent support for the policies of his successor.” He continues:
The European Union is disappointing Obama over economic policy, and immediately after the G20 summit the European Union will disappoint him all over again at the NATO summit, where the European allies will decline to commit new combat forces to Afghanistan.
Indeed, the United States and Britain had already gone a long way to accepting the European demand for much more intrusive financial regulation, in the hope that this would be met by more EU readiness to join the United States and Britain with stimulus spending.
He explains European recalcitrance thusly:
Lurking behind these European attitudes is a deep resentment of the Anglo-Saxon form of capitalism, the innovative and risk-taking financial practices of Wall Street and London, which they blame for getting the world into its current mess. There is some truth in this, except that German, Swedish and Austrian banks were just as risky and profligate in their lending to Eastern European countries.
More fundamentally, though, as Anne Applebaum writes in a scathing article arguing the pointlessness of the G20 and other economic summits, the assembled leaders all have very different agendas based on their domestic interests.
While I am usually the first to accuse the Europeans of dithering and dissembling, I have some sympathy for the Germans on this point. The reason they, the French, and many others in Europe—the British are an exception—have avoided spending large amounts of money on their economy is not because they are incompetent Continentals. It is because they do not think it will work. Strange though it may sound, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, are leaders who, for better or for worse, came to have some respect for what used to be called Anglo-American capitalism, with what used to be its reputation for fiscal conservatism. More to the point, they are also running up against the limits of what they can borrow and are worried about inflation as well.
This latter worry is even more acute in many smaller European countries, some of whom are actually cutting their budgets and introducing financial austerity packages as a result. Though these policies aren’t popular now, their advocates might well be proved right in the end. There is an analogy here, albeit an unfortunate one, to the recent past. After Sept. 11, the Bush administration, instead of fixing al-Qaida, Afghanistan, and Pakistan for good, decided to invade Iraq. The Europeans balked—and those who didn’t, like the British, are now sorry. After the banking crisis, the Obama administration, instead of regulating the banking system and the mortgage market, decided to devise a massive stimulus package, build a lot of bridges, expand educational spending, and maybe fix health care, too. The Europeans are balking again. Will those who aren’t, like the British, be sorry a few years from now?
While I’m personally quite sympathetic to Merkel’s point as well and agree that the recalcitrant Europeans may well have the right instinct here, the more important point is that, as the duly elected leaders of sovereign nation states, they have a fundamental obligation to make policy based on what the believe to be in the best interests of their people. Maintaining good relations with the most powerful country on the planet fits that bill, of course, but it’s far fromthe only consideration.
A point I’ve stressed time and again these last few months is that, while Barack Obama is different in many important ways than George W. Bush, they’re both filling the same role. Regardless of differences in personality, ideology, political party, and temperament, American presidents will always have more in common with one another than with the French president, German chancellor, or British premier.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.