Obama and Europe

The following response to the questions "What message do you think President Obama should deliver to Europe; what message should Europe deliver to Obama?" originally appeared in "The Arena," a daily online debate among policymakers and other opinion makers on the website Politico. Heather Grabbe is executive director of the Open Society Institute–Brussels.

Europe is enjoying the brief moment of optimism brought by President Obama this week. He is not only the most popular U.S. president since JFK among American voters, but European ones as well. We love his style—the laid-back intellectual has always been cool from Paris to Prague. We love his youth and glamor. And we love his American can-do attitude. We want to believe he can bring solutions.

But we’re nervous about what Europe can really deliver when he asks for specific help. Certainly there’s no united—or even well-coordinated—European response to the economic crisis. On a host of issues where people in the EU are looking to the U.S. for leadership, are we ready to respond? Take climate change, which Europeans have long agreed is a real problem that requires urgent action by the world’s largest carbon-emitting country per capita—the U.S. But are we Europeans prepared to bear the costs of a long-term carbon emissions reduction scheme like Obama’s cap and trade proposal?

Foreign policy is even trickier. What happens when Obama asks his allies at the NATO summit on Saturday to send more troops to Afghanistan? Some EU soldiers in Afghanistan are confined to barracks to keep them safe, and only a few countries deploy them in danger-zones. This is an unpopular military campaign in whose eventual success the European public has little faith. Most European militaries are already overstretched with their commitments in Iraq and elsewhere. What will he ask us to do to help the U.S. get out of Iraq? How many more Guantanamo detainees will he ask us to take?

This is the moment when European leaders’ enthusiastic expressions of welcome and support to the new president have to be translated into costly and unpopular commitments.

George W. Bush caused all kinds of problems which embroiled Europeans—from Iraq to Guantanamo to Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq was particularly embarrassing because it divided the EU’s members publicly. But Bush also made life easy for European policy-makers. We became used to criticizing Bush’s policies as a substitute for agreeing on our own. We became used to blaming the mess in the world on the arrogant and short-sighted approach of the neo-cons. Now Obama is asking us to help sort out the mess, we have to take responsibility for more of it, and we know that we are likely to fail on a lot of it.

If Europe can get its act together, this could be the moment when EU foreign policy matures. The EU could come up with a unified response to the U.S. president’s overtures, wanting to show goodwill and an equal commitment to multilateralism. We could find some political courage in the face of adversity to match his. His message of hope is attractive even to jaded European policy-makers, and will help them to garner public support for painful measures.

So Obama’s message to Europe should be “Can you work with me to tackle these problems?” And Europe should respond “Yes we can!”

To read more responses, go to www.politico.com/arena/.

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