Obama’s Europe Neglect Could Bring Bush Nostalgia
My first piece for ForeignPolicy.com, “Europe’s Obama Fatigue,” is online.
Despite George W. Bush’s defiant “you’re with us or you’re against us” public stance, he actively solicited advice and input from his NATO partners. Obama, by contrast, is saying all the right things in public about transatlantic relations and NATO but adopting a high-handed policy and paying little attention to Europe.
It would be ironic, indeed, if the Europeans started longing for the good old days of the Bush administration. But that nostalgia is closer than you might think.
Supporting arguments at the link.
UPDATE: As one might expect, this piece is generating some strong rebuttals.
Daniel Larison argues:
You cannot gauge the importance or unimportance of Europe to the United States on the largely cosmetic, superficial and procedural clashes Washington has had with various European states in the last nine months. Under the previous administration, Europe continued to be “important” to the U.S. even when major EU powers opposed administration policy in very public, dramatic ways. To the extent that Obama is losing ground with Europeans, he had far more goodwill and support to lose; in almost every European country, he continues to rate higher after the drop-off from unrealistic expectations than Bush did at almost any point. Obviously relations were and remained far more strained under the last administration than they have been so far under this one. We notice the minor clashes that have taken place because there was a widely-shared, unreasonable expectation that amity and concord with Europe would prevail under Obama.
European and especially German interests were flatly ignored by Bush when it came to handling Russia. Promises to Ukraine and Georgia of eventual membership in NATO were given over strenuous German opposition. Were European interests and opinions being heeded then? No. The missile defense ploy prompted Moscow to threaten abandoning its commitments under the European conventional forces treaty and elicited a great deal of bluster from Medvedev about targeting Russian missiles on European soil. Was European security strengthened by any of this? No. What matter then if Bush went through the motions and observed the right formalities when he was getting the major decisions wrong?
Most western European allies were not seriously consulted, nor were their objections given much weight, when the Bush administration decided to push ahead with the missile defense plan. In all of the new commentary claiming that Europe has soured on Obama, this seems not to count at all.
Judah Grunstein adds:
[I]f George W. Bush learned to listen to Europe, and in particular NATO, it was largely after he’d been chastened by the failure of the Iraq war and the 2006 mid-term elections. Up until his final NATO summit, Bush continued to talk loudly about the largely unpopular measures of NATO expansion and missile defense. He listened in the sense that he allowed the alliance — led by France and Germany — to turn him back, but it was out of weakness, not out of strength. There was no movement at all when it came to climate change, which is a major driver of public opinion here.
As for Obama’s handling of Europe, I’d agree with the characterization of his aloofness, especially with regard to the current Afghanistan strategic review. But while my sympathies would normally be with Europe on this sort of thing, I do think that Obama invited the NATO allies last April to assume greater ownership of the Afghanistan war. Given their refusal to do so, I don’t blame him for the freeze-out now. That said, Obama’s brush-off of the U.S.-EU summit is inexcusable and reflects a myopic view of the EU’s potential, especially with the advent of the Lisbon Treaty.
I actually don’t disagree with either Dan or Judah on most of these points and think some of the disagreement comes from the provocative title the FP folks chose. My argument is neither that the Europeans have tired of Obama or even that Bush was particularly adept at transatlantic diplomacy. Rather, it is that Bush cared more about Europe — and particularly the UK and New Europe — than Obama and therefore invested more of himself in the relationship.
It’s true that Obama’s stance on, for example, missile defense and NATO expansion is more popular in some quarters than Bush’s. Indeed, I prefer his approach on the latter and quibble with him on the former mostly on how the rollout was done vice the policy itself. But the policy differences are a reflection of Obama’s prioritizing Russia’s views over that of Europe, especially East and Central Europe. I think Bush was ultimately wrong in his zeal to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO but it was a policy preference motivated by the stated ideals of the Alliance of “a Europe whole and free.”