Mr. Obama Has His Reasons for Snubbing Disunited Old Europe
"He would prefer a dinner with his own Michelle, Malia, and Sasha to playing friendship theater with E.U. leaders. ... With his casual willingness to snub Merkel and Sarkozy, he all but calls for the emergence of a Europe united in form and function."
From left to right: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, E.U. President Jose Manuel Barroso and President Obama at the E.U.-U.S. summit in Prague, April 5. Is Obama trying to push European unification?
There were long faces in
Berlin and in Paris after the recent visit by U.S. President Barack Obama: The
superstar of the White House granted his most important continental allies less
time than Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy would have liked.
In Paris, when it was leaked
that Obama would prefer a relaxing visit with his family to a Paris bistro rather
than play friendship-theater with the French presidential couple, it caused
some irritation in the Elysée [the Presidential palace].
On his second visit to Europe
as U.S. President, Obama focused his two stopovers on his tour of the Buchenwald
concentration camp in Germany and the Allies' commemoration of the Normandy
landings. The expectations of his German and French hosts for photo-ops and
friendly gestures he disappointed coolly.
Obama is a man who plots out
and calculates his political moves like a chess player. Combined with the
scheduling of his first visit to Europe and his businesslike conduct during his
second, one can detect something like a programmatic statement of how this
President would like to shape relations with his Allies on the Old Continent.
On the surface it seems that
Europe absolutely counts: Close advisors have rightly point out that on Obama's
calendar of trips abroad during the first six months of his term, Europe took first
place. It was “only” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who was the new
administration's first representative to visit Asia and China, followed by Treasury
Secretary Timothy Geithner.
It was the chief who twice traveled
to Europe and therefore countered European anxiety that in his conception of
the world and strategic understanding, the continent of Europe was of
Therefore, Obama traveled to appointments
like his meeting with all E.U. heads of state and government at the end of the
G20 and NATO summits in March. And that is why he targeted places and events with
a highly symbolic value, such as Buchenwald, Dresden and Normandy. Obama obviously
wants no part of bilateral policy and emotional theater with individual E.U. leaders
who in the world of the early 21st century find themselves on the road to average
middle-class ranking in the global pecking order. Instead, he would prefer a holiday
dinner on his own with Michelle, Malia, and Sasha.
Indeed, the American
superpower has checked in for its own long descent: it may soon find itself in terms
of global politics in the same situation Great Britain was in 100 years ago, as
former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd wrote
a few days ago in The Guardian.
Obama is unlike his
predecessor George W. Bush, who was blind to history. And he also knows how
much faster and deeper the descent of the Europeans will be as long as they don't
manage to counter the non-European world with a unified message and common representation.
Already in these first months
of his tenure, the outlines of Obama's foreign policy informs us of his special
mix of courage and caution. Part of it is his willingness, despite a severe
economic crisis and ambitious plans for reform in the U.S., to exert heavy
pressure on a government like Benjamin Netanyahu's in Israel - even if this
provokes hatred and opposition from pro-Israel lobbyist groups in the U.S. that
fight every disassociation with Israeli policy as an attack on the integrity of
This includes the willingness
to break taboos, as when at Cairo University Obama counted Islam among America's
major religions and sprinkled his speech with quotes from the "Holy Quran."
It also includes tactical restraint, as with Obama's refusal to clarify his
position on the Iranian struggle over the outcome of their presidential
election. And it's also in part about things like that somewhat deeper than
advised bow before the
Saudi King, a key figure in the quest for peace in Palestine.
Just as with the individual segments
of his Middle East policy, out of the contacts that the new U.S. government has
engaged in with the German Chancellery, Elysée, Downing Street and the E.U., a
coherent pattern is gradually emerging.
Obama, the first U.S. president
to carry globalization to the White House with his life story, knows the significance
that Europe's past and present hold for America. With his willingness to arrive
in March for the E.U.-U.S. summit in Prague, he signaled to Europeans that on
principle, he embraces their pursuit of a unified foreign policy.
With his casual willingness
to snub Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, he all but calls for the emergence of
a Europe united in form and function. Because of the way Germany's chancellor
and France's president where treated as a pair before their own people, Obama
signaled that by themselves they are no longer important enough to warrant special
There's little doubt that the
center-left politician, former social worker and elite lawyer Obama would like
to recruit Europeans as favored partners - but only if they manage to develop a
clear and constructive line on the great responsibilities of global policy and
jointly assume the risks. That was the message of his first visit. If the
Europeans misread the signs of the 21st century, Merkel, Sarkozy, and their
successors cannot expect to be doted on by Obama - such was the message of his
There are other leaders and world
figures who mean more to the interests of Washington than unification-weary Europeans
competing for attention. It would not be surprising if Chinese President Hu
Jintao - the man who codetermines America's eligibility for credit - were to be
treated with the utmost courtesy on his first visit to Obama's Washington - something
that Merkel and Sarkozy have been denied.
*Thomas Klau is an FTD
columnist and heads the Paris Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.