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Europe spurns the beloved Obama

By Gideon Rachman

Published: March 30 2009 20:18 | Last updated: March 30 2009 20:18

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Europeans have long worshipped Barack Obama from afar. Now the beloved one is paying his first visit as US president to the old continent. Yet there is every indication that Europe’s leaders are about to stiff him.

Mr Obama is on a rapid-fire tour that will take him from the Group of 20 meeting in London to a Nato summit in Strasbourg, then on to a US-European Union meeting in Prague and, finally, a state visit in Turkey. But he will be lucky to return from Europe with much more than commemorative photos and some presents for the kids. (“I went to the G20 summit in London and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”)

If you look at Mr Obama’s top priorities, you get a sense of just how little the Europeans are prepared to give him. More help in Afghanistan? Most Europeans will do the bare minimum. A co-ordinated fiscal stimulus? Sorry, Europe is out of cash as well as troops.

Europe’s grudging attitude to the new president is not only discourteous. It is unwise and self-defeating. Mr Obama is an internationalist. But the American public is war weary and preoccupied by the domestic economic disaster. If even a liberal, internationalist president seems to be getting nothing out of America’s allies, then protectionist and isolationist voices in Congress will only get louder.

Any such development would be disastrous for Europe. The US remains the core of the global economy and the guarantor of security in Europe. The continent’s leaders have a huge interest in fostering and fanning the new American internationalism represented by Mr Obama. Instead, they seem to be doing their utmost to pour cold water on it.

Already you hear grumbles in Europe that the new president has little instinctive sympathy for or understanding of Europeans (unlike that nice George W. Bush). There are complaints that the Obama administration is too concerned with domestic affairs. The president is accused of being too casual with European visitors. How dare he give the visiting British prime minister a box of old films? Couldn’t he think of something more lavish?

This is pathetic stuff. If you look at the actual substance of what his administration has been doing, Obama has made a point of moving significantly on four issues that bedevilled US-European relations during the Bush years: climate change, Guantánamo, Iraq and Iran. The prison camp at Guantánamo Bay is to be closed. Mr Obama has appointed people such as Steven Chu, the new energy secretary, who are passionate about tackling global warming. He has announced a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. And he has launched a diplomatic initiative with Iran.

Naturally, the Obama administration wants something in return from the Europeans. A few months ago the Americans were hoping that their allies might come up with more troops for Afghanistan, and relax some of the notorious “caveats” that restrict what German soldiers, in particular, can do. That hope has proved largely vain. The British might send a couple of thousand more troops. The Poles and Italians could also chip in. But any new European contribution will be feeble compared with the 21,000 extra troops that the US is committing.

Rather than confront the Europeans on the issue of troops, the Obama administration has decided to try to find other areas in which Europe could contribute. A laundry list of such actions will be flourished at the Nato summit; more money, more Europeans to train the Afghan army and police. But while the list will be long, it will not be all that impressive. There will certainly be nothing to compare with Japan’s decision to pay the entire salary bill for the Afghan police for the next six months.

There are aspects of Mr Obama’s new Afghanistan policy that can be legitimately disagreed with. The decision to expand the fight inside Pakistan looks risky. But allied reservations would be listened to with more attention if the Europeans were prepared to make more effort themselves. Mr Obama is certainly right when he insists that the fight in Afghanistan is one that concerns the entire western world. A resurgent al-Qaeda would be just as big a threat to Europe as to the US.

It is the same story on Iran. The Europeans say they are very pleased with Mr Obama’s new tone. But there is little indication that the Germans, in particular, are prepared to tighten sanctions, should diplomacy stall and Iran’s nuclear programme accelerate.

The G20 summit in London is also being overshadowed by a US-European dispute about how to respond to the economic crisis. The Americans want to emphasise co-ordinated Keynesian spending to jolt the world economy back into life. Many Europeans are sceptical. Mirek Topolanek, the recently deposed Czech prime minister – apparently inspired by watching AC/DC perform “Highway to Hell” in Prague – has helpfully warned that US economic policy has put the country on the “road to hell”. This has set just the right atmosphere for the EU-US summit in Prague next weekend.

The Europeans would rather emphasise institutional reform than fiscal stimuli. Both ideas will get a nod in the G20 communiqué. But the American emphasis on dealing with the immediate crisis is surely preferable to the European predilection for abstract discussions of institutions.

Mr Obama was the president that Europeans hoped and prayed for. Now they have got him, they need to give him some help.


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