European Nations 'Expect a Lot' From an Obama Presidency

Officials have long list of issues to fix, from climate change to arms control, after rocky Bush years.


After an often rocky eight-year relationship with the Bush administration, European officials are counting on the future Obama presidency to revive what they say has been Washington's flagging commitment to multilateralism—and at the same time return U.S.-European relations to a more central place in American foreign policy.

"We expect a lot," says a senior European official.

European leaders were notably eager to phone in their congratulations to Barack Obama, hoping to get things started on the right foot while attaching themselves to some of Obama's international star power. When candidate Obama swung through parts of the Middle East and Europe in July, a cheering throng of more than 200,000 gathered to hear him in the center of Berlin. His first visit to Europe as president is among the most anticipated in decades.

For all of its historic and economic ties, the U.S.-European relationship shed some of its salience after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The main threat to the European-North American alliance of NATO removed, differences over foreign policy, culture, and even values seemed to grow larger. That distance grew markedly when a conservative Bush administration broke with much of Europe over invading Iraq and on its approach to climate change, arms control, international justice, and other issues. President Bush was routinely declared to be a unilateralist out of step with mainstream European attitudes.

The Bush years saw, in Donald Rumsfeld's scornful phrasing, an administration distinguishing between "Old Europe" and "New Europe"—a division that depended largely on how closely those countries aligned their foreign policies with Bush's. Amid upset with opposition to the Iraq war from France, among others, it was also a period where french fries sold at some Capitol Hill eateries temporarily got a new name: "freedom fries."

Bush's more pragmatic second-term foreign policy included considerable repair work on Washington's relationship with Europe; Obama has vowed to keep advancing the repair job.

The need for an intensified partnership, say diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic, is truly urgent. An increasingly assertive Russia needs to be engaged but also deterred from actions like its invasion and partial occupation of neighboring Georgia in August. A more dangerous Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan—now a NATO as well as a U.S. war—needs to be put down. Stalled Middle East peace efforts need new focus and energy. Iran's accelerating nuclear program has to be reined in. Climate change must be confronted more rapidly. And, amid recession and reeling financial markets, both sides of the Atlantic need to spur economic growth and reform the global financial system.

"We must be partners," says France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.

Still, Obama and his European interlocutors will face serious obstacles in fulfilling that goal completely. Obama is certain to come calling on Europe for more troops—with fewer restrictions on fighting—to dispatch to Afghanistan. He plans a deeper U.S. involvement there as well. But the Europeans believe that U.S. forces have overemphasized the military side of combating the Taliban while the government in Kabul loses credibility. Some countries, most prominently Germany, are leery of large, new troop commitments to a war that attracts limited public support on the Continent.

On Russia, most European capitals are more eager than Washington to reach out to Moscow after its Georgia invasion, which has broken off two different regions as rump states. Germany and others are deeply protective of their hard-won political and commercial ties to Russia after overcoming the existential threat they faced for so many decades from the Kremlin. Expanding NATO further, as well as implementing the U.S.-planned missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, would further antagonize Moscow and likely widen rifts in the Atlantic alliance.

Differences over how to reduce greenhouse gases and modify global finance may well also emerge.