Europeans Cheer Obama Now but May Complain Later On

He's seen as better than Bush, but not all disputes will just fade away.

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LONDON—They're cheering in Europe for now, but disagreements between America and its allies on some issues won't just melt away when Barack Obama assumes office.

The reaction has been a huge sigh, reflecting anticipation among political leaders on this side of the Atlantic that President-elect Obama's administration will be less ideologically driven than the Bush administration and more accommodating to the views of European allies.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown claims that he and Obama "share many values," while French President Nicolas Sarkozy says that Obama offers "enormous hope." Moreover, public reaction to his election has been euphoric—a marked change from the deep disdain for President Bush that's widespread in Europe. Obama's popularity makes it easy for European heads of state to once again pal around with an American president without tanking in the polls themselves. "Obama represents the America that Europe likes — he's jazz, not country and western," says Chris Brown, an international relations expert at the London School of Economics.

Trouble is, the cool vibes of expected harmony are likely to give way to the downbeat of a reality check soon after Inauguration Day. Past disagreements won't all vanish, and some potential Obama policies may generate new frictions. "Europeans talk of multilateralism," Brown says, "which means they want the U.S. to use its power and resources to do things Europeans like."

But Obama, like any president, will always look out for America's self-interest first. And therein lies the rub.

For instance, Obama has indicated that he sees the need for a stronger military effort by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan. But there's an unwillingness among many other NATO members to send more troops there. "Europeans don't share the view that more sacrifice is necessary" to bring about a resolution of the conflict, says Stefan Halper, director of the Atlantic Studies Program at the University of Cambridge.

In the standoff with Iran over its nuclear-enrichment program, European leaders will mostly welcome Obama's indications that he's willing to talk to Tehran. But Obama has also warned that he won't tolerate a nuclear Iran. "His bottom line is there's a potential use of force," Brown says, and that's not a popular view here.

Most European governments say they'll do everything necessary to curb Iran's nuclear program, short of force. Meanwhile, any sort of dialogue with Iran is sure to annoy Israel. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said that talks with Iran could be seen as American "weakness."

America's planned deployment of a missile defense shield in Europe to counter any sort of ballistic missile attack by a rogue nation such as Iran could come under review in an Obama White House, especially since some key members of the Democratic-controlled Congress have long questioned the system's effectiveness. But the Bush administration persuaded Poland to agree to base 10 interceptor missiles on its territory and the Czech Republic to house a radar station, decisions that put both countries on the outs with an angry Russia. So, any decision to pull the plug on the system probably won't go down well in Warsaw and Prague after they've risked the wrath of Russia to accommodate the United States. "I would think that it would hugely irritate them," Halper says.

However, those western European allies who don't relish a new U.S.-Russian feud—Germany in particular—might welcome it.

Trade is another possible point of contention, reflecting European worries that an Obama administration might adopt protectionist policies. It's an issue made more acute by the global economic struggle. "He (Obama) said some very protectionist things in the primaries and didn't back away from them in the general (election)," Brown says.

One area where there may be more agreement and coordination is climate change. But both the United States and Europe may find their options limited for some time by recession and the ongoing financial crisis.