Europe: Be Careful What You Wish For
The eight years of George W. Bush’s Presidency have not been easy for the traditionally close relationship between the United States and Europe. As well as the obvious external threat of terrorism, which has both united the US and Europe in its severity and divided them in their respective responses, significant friction has also been caused by differences over climate change and global trade.
In consequence, there is a palpable sense of relief among governments throughout Europe that the Bush era is now over. Indeed, an enormous sense of expectation hangs over the election of the 44th President of the United States in November, and politicians throughout Europe have made little attempt to disguise their hope that, in terms
of seeking multilateral approaches to global problems, normal service will be resumed thereafter. What is more, this sense of expectation is linked to a clear preference within Europe for Barack Obama over John McCain.
Of course, such preferences, which are generally explicitly voiced among commentators and implicitly among politicians, are often informed by a superficial reading of US politics, as they assume that a McCain administration would represent a seamless continuity with its predecessor. In reality, that is unlikely to be the case: no two Presidents are alike (as the records of George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush illustrate), and McCain has already indicated his determination to set a different tone to the Bush Presidency in some areas, by for instance rejecting torture as a legitimate method of interrogation.
But paradoxically, a potential Obama victory in November promises to create some serious discomfort for European governments. For the fractious relationship to the Bush administration provided a convenient fig leaf for several European governments simply to wash their hands of certain issues, especially Iraq, while still retaining the moral high ground. However, and crucially, this option will no longer remain on the table under an Obama Presidency. Even if Obama can maintain his ambitious campaign pledge to withdraw all US combat troops within a period of around 16 months, which is itself a hostage to fortune, Iraq will remain a significant challenge for the Atlantic Alliance for many years to come. In that sense, it is likely that European governments will be asked to shoulder much more active responsibility for Iraq than has hitherto been the case.
An even more difficult challenge is Afghanistan. Here, the fighting between the Taleban and the international military contingents has reached an extraordinary intensity. So far, the lion’s share of the military burden has been borne by the US, the UK and Canada, all of whom have suffered heavy military casualties: in a three-week period in June 2008 alone, the UK lost thirteen soldiers to enemy action. For the US too, casualty rates in Afghanistan now exceed those in Iraq. Accordingly, Obama has already pinpointed Afghanistan, and not Iraq, as his top military priority. Were he to be elected, European governments will surely face the prospect of a request to provide more combat troops to ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom which they simply cannot refuse. So far, it is particularly Germany, with its large contingent based in the north of the country, which has come under sustained pressure from the US and the UK. However, with the signs increasing that Germany may be willing to take on a more active role in military terms, other European allies, notably Italy and Spain, will face similar pressures to follow suit. Trouble is, the prospect of heavy casualties and an indefinite military and financial commitment to one of the world’s most hostile environments is not popular among European electorates, thereby leaving politicians looking towards the next election in a real political quandary.
What is more, the challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan will be reflected in other areas too, notably climate change. The perceived intransigence of the Bush Administration over the years on the Kyoto Protocol means that any initiative by an Obama Presidency will be difficult to reject, even if it in practice constitutes much less than what European governments had hoped for. Elsewhere too, the transatlantic relationship may come under strain sooner than expected. Thus, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which have so far proved impervious to the strategy of negotiation preferred by European countries, remain undiminished, and constitute a major potential destabilizing factor in the region and globally. Indeed, Iran will
arguably constitute the most serious test of Barack Obama’s mettle as President, while John McCain has of course infamously used song to indicate possible military options. By contrast, countries such as France and Germany can be expected to show reluctance in endorsing a more confrontational approach, not least because of safeguarding their
substantial commercial interests in the region. In world trade, the current Doha round remains deadlocked, with agricultural subsidies once more constituting a major blockage between the US, the EU, India and Brazil. In the context of the current global economic slowdown, the rationale for any US President seeking re-election in 2012 to make concessions to Europe in this area is difficult to identify.
What this means is that many Europeans’ hope for a clean break from the Bush Presidency is simply unrealistic. No matter who wins the race to the White House, the next President’s primary challenge in foreign policy is not to shape the world according to his vision, but to address the unresolved legacy of his predecessor. So far, European governments in
general, mindful no doubt of the high domestic political costs attached to positive engagement with the Bush Administration, have been able to sit on the sidelines. But this tactic will no longer wash after 2009, regardless of whether Barack Obama or John McCain occupies the Oval Office.
In stark contrast to McCain, perhaps the biggest headache for European governments is that Obama remains a
largely unknown quantity in foreign and trade policy. And although the selection of Senator Joe Biden as his running mate is clearly intended to assuage fears over this aspect of his candidacy, both at home and abroad, it is difficult to predict how exactly he will respond to any of the challenges listed above. In consequence, there is a temptation
for European politicians to idealize what his potential Presidency might bring. Yet an Obama Administration would surely be under immense pressure domestically to show that it is capable of defending American interests vis-à-vis Europe with the necessary vigor. Indeed, it is likely itself to want to be seen to do so.
At best, therefore, the 44th President is likely to bring a change in tone to transatlantic relations. Certainly, the potential impact of this alone should not be underestimated: witness the dramatic improvement in the perception of German-US relations after 2005, when Chancellor Merkel was able to charm US circles simply by not being Gerhard Schröder. But
the issues and challenges of transatlantic relations remain very much in place: the world is just a very different place now to what some in Europe might see as the halcyon days of the Clinton Presidency. In that sense, Europe really should be careful what it wishes for, because it may get far more than it bargained for.