Obama’s Europe

Mehru Jaffer

Europe sounds more and more like a jealous wife when talking about America these days. At a recent discussion on 'Obama and the Europeans: What has changed?' Europe pouted over Barack Obama's increasing interest in Asia in a voice that sounded to threaten divorce. The discussion was hosted by the Vienna-based Institute for Human Sciences. 

Barack Obama remains a symbol of hope for millions on both sides of the Atlantic. However, a little more than a year after Obama's electoral triumph in 2008 as the first Afro-American president of the US, many in Europe wonder what has changed.

 Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, editor-in-chief of Austria's liberal daily Der Standard, opened the discussion by pointing out that problematic issues like the US health care reforms, closing of Guantánamo prisons, the financial crisis, the Middle East conflict and global climate protection virtually remain promises, and as time goes by, it becomes more debatable if Obama actually 'can' ? The 'Yes we can' slogan of Obama has raised such excessive expectations that all the enthusiasm seems to have soured into disenchantment.

 Participants in the high-powered discussion included Michael Spindelegger, Minister for Foreign Affairs in Austria, who said that Obama's 'Yes, we can' claim gave birth to a fresh relationship between politics and hope. Complaints against Obama include a lack of boldness in action. Wall Street continues to dominate; capitalism is out of control and militarism rules.

 Competing visions of the way the world should be in the new millennium has increased trans-Atlantic tensions. The explanation that Obama is only following money in Asia is little consolation to Europe.

Robert Kagan, Washington Post columnist and author of Paradise and Power, added that it is no good to pretend that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world today. Obama's America is from Mars and Europe is from Venus.

 It is true that once upon a time it was European adventurism that gave birth to the Americas. But that was a long time ago. The US has moved on since then and its values are different from those of Europe. 

The US prefers military force to diplomacy and there is no fundamental difference over this between the Democrats and Republicans. It is a fact that US is far more willing to go to war today than Europe.  

Europe is disappointed as it may have taken the trans-Atlantic relationship for granted during the entire post Cold War period, causing serious misunderstandings between the two continents. It will help to accept that the military is very close to the heart of the political culture in the US and the country is not averse to using military power simply because it has it.

 The US is obsessed with security. The attitude has become magnified after 9/11. Unlike Europe, the country still remains in the post 9/11 mentality. The government spends billions on its defence budget and yet opinion polls reveal that ordinary Americans do not feel secure enough!   

It is easy to understand its operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan once the obsession of America with security is understood. Such national interests do not change with electoral cycles.

 Other speakers agreed that Obama's main concern at the moment is certainly not his waning or waxing popularity in Europe. Obama is preoccupied with muddling out of the domestic drama. His priority is to make Americans feel that they continue to be strong, rich and secure. Like any American president, Obama gravitates towards those who can help him to combat those who America feels cause trouble to America. No wonder it was easy for Stanley Greenberg, political scientist, to conclude that with Obama everything has changed and nothing has changed.  

Ivan Vejvoda, executive director, Balkan Trust for Democracy, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, Belgrade, admits to a huge change in the tone and style of Obama's presidency in which Europe clearly takes a central stage. Has Europe not changed? It was a battlefield just half-a-century ago. But with the defence budget of its members trashed for 60 years and emphasis of the European Union on multi-lateralism, Europe has lost its taste for war. It has no choice but to depend more on diplomacy and on a longer perspective of history.  

Karel Schwarzenberg, former Czech minister for foreign affairs, hopes that Europe would ask itself why the US considers it a lightweight today. A lot more money and a little less morality perhaps is what America needs in its hour of slipping superpowerdom to return to Europe's familiar bosom.

 

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2010