As Europe keeps its eyes on the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election, it has come to the realization that the continent no longer carries the necessary geopolitical clout to influence the calculus of Washington’s foreign policy in the region and beyond.
As a point of departure, it is essential to remember how the world looked when President Barak Obama took office three and a half years ago. Recalling the basic thinking the United States had about Europe at the very start of the Obama Presidency sheds light on how transatlantic ties have evolved over the course of his first term.
Upon taking office, Obama inherited a daunting set of global challenges, the magnitude and reach of which few administrations have seen in recent history. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the growing nuclear challenge from Iran, the scourge of global terrorism, and, of course, the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s, strains in transatlantic unity compounded the difficulty of handling these complicated issues.
The unprecedented divisions across the Atlantic over Iraq, questions concerning European engagement in Afghanistan, disagreement over how to handle Iran’s nuclear program, and the relationship with Russia that was probably at the worst point since the end of the Cold War all presented a major transatlantic hurdle to surmount. At the time, a German Marshall Fund Poll taken in 2008 found that just 19 percent of Europeans approved of Washington’s handling of its international affairs and only 36 percent viewed American leadership in the world as desirable. From early on, the American President understood that the challenges that his country faced were so considerable that even America’s unparalleled power could not deal with them alone. And so he came to office with the conviction that the United States could address these challenges more effectively by working together with partners. And he was convinced that the United States had no more important set of partners in dealing with this set of challenges than those in the democratic countries of Europe.
As a State Senator in the summer of 2007, Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs that the mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity. In order to achieve this goal, he stated his intention was to rebuild the alliances, partnerships, and institutions necessary to confront common threats and enhance common security.
In a subsequent speech that he gave in Berlin a year later, then Candidate Obama underscored the priority placed on revitalizing these alliances. He observed that no nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone and when looking for partners to deal with this challenging world -- alongside to deal with this challenging world, Europe was the place that we would find them. This administration has, therefore, invested deliberately and consciously in strengthening these essential transatlantic ties.
However, one fundamental and subtle pretext to this new approach was the assumption that America’s alliances were of a qualitatively different set of relationships than just coalitions of first among equals. Seeking to avoid the legacy of continuing the Bush administration’s adoption of American Exceptionalism, the Obama administration modified its policy towards Europe by replacing Exceptionalism with American indispensability as the guiding framework through which to conduct American statecraft abroad. As such, the United States has chosen to utilize its leverage as the world’s super power to lead from behind and encourage its European allies to steward the brunt of its diplomatic initiatives and military preferences as demonstrated by using NATO in Libya last year.
This Counterintuitive approach seems to have worked in America’s interest. Earlier this Spring, the same German Marshall Fund Poll that had once found that 36 percent of Europeans had faith in the President’s handling, in U.S. leadership in the world, registered at 75 percent and has consistently been in the upper 70s and lower 80s since President Obama took office. And this reality is an asset that serves the United States well when it calls on its European allies to follow its global international leadership, which its does frequently.
Perhaps said best by El Mundo’s Eduardo Suarez, for his part, “Mitt Romey has a special obsession with Europe," as he has over the course of the campaign “cited it as an example of everything the United States shouldn't be.” Romney has on many occasions used the Euro Zone Crisis to score political points and highlight the dangers the United States faces if it refuses to reign in on its public debt.
In his trip to London this summer, Romney’s inexperience to the sensitivities that come along with international statesmanship were on full display through his gaffes on the city’s preparedness for the Olympics.
And on the theatre of international conflict, Romney has indicated a willingness to work closely with American allies in the Middle East. However, his positions towards Europe on foreign policy closely resemble that of the current President. For example in the last Presidential debate, on issue after issue – Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, and even on Iran, there was more agreement than disagreement. Is it possible to explain how Romney and Obama’s policy toward, say, conditional aid for Pakistan is any different? Romney was for sanctions, but tighter; negotiations, but tougher; timelines, but more inclusive.
The Euro Zone Crisis and its Discontents
With many national economies slipping back into recession and voters in Greece, France and the United Kingdom rejecting austerity measures in recent elections, the European political and economic landscape has shifted again. Europe now seems headed towards a revised social contract and a new round of negotiations to respond to the continuing financial crisis. The United States, while experiencing a mild recovery, also strives to find the right balance between fiscal consolidation and growth preservation—a mission made more challenging with the upcoming November elections. A new loss of confidence in Europe may well imperil the U.S. economy’s fragile recovery. Will similar anti-austerity political currents cross the Atlantic and bring "change" to the United States? Despite the crisis, transatlantic cooperation has increased during the Obama administration, but U.S.-EU relations will be subjected to critical examination during the months ahead.
The dearth of substantive statements made by both candidates this election season on the Euro Zone crisis demonstrates that Europe has not been a high profile issue of this campaign. This reflects both the lack of interest in the American electorate towards the EU’s monetary disputes and a growing attitude among American foreign policy elites towards Brussels. Unlike the Cold War, Europe no longer serves as the Sine Que Non in the calculus of American strategic decision making. Even if the next President chooses to adapt a stronger stance on military intervention in Syria’s Civil War, which will certainly require collaboration between American and European forces, America’s preoccupation with the Middle East and fascination with Asia, has left Europe as a vanquished geopolitical force that commands less attention as a partner on equal footing with Washington. The reasons for this state of affairs are many. One fundamental component to this dynamic remains the disproportionate American commitment to NATO’s budget and lack of incentives of European nations to commit a larger share of their expenditure for the continent’s self defense. While many in the U.S. believe its NATO partners can contribute more to the alliance, tightening budgets in Europe will not incentivize European nations to double down on their existing contributions for their security. This will not promote a willingness from Washington to seek consensus moving forward regardless of the outcome of the election. There remains a bi-partisan consensus in Washington that when America needs to act on its own overseas it reserves and has the means to do so accordingly.
Regardless of who wins on Nov. 6th, Europe will remain with its challenges as the United States will look on as a constructive observer at the very best. The task of establishing viable budget restraints and resolving Europe’s problems will remain largely a continental affair, a position which the next American President is likely to endorse.