On eve of NATO summit, Obama's style poses inherent challenge for Europe
As president heads to France, Europeans ask how best to respond to an ally that is suddenly sending all the signals it has hoped for.
As Barack Obama leaves London and heads to a key NATO gathering here Friday, he steps onto the European continent as new, fresh – an urban guy, a 21st century American, someone Europeans understand and admire.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet that may be part of the problem. President Obama, the new US face and policy, represents an inherent challenge to Europe: It is not just that Obama drips soft power from every pore, is a listener, a Democrat, "sympathetique," and a hero for immigrant populations in Europe's suburbs that have yet to achieve political power. More deeply, the popular young American president is stirring basic questions here over how to coordinate and respond to a chief ally that is suddenly sending all the signals Europe asked for.
In London, in a last-minute compromise that many called historic, the White House got far more stimulus to relight the global trade economy than many thought possible. However, at NATO's 60th anniversary here in Strasbourg, he may not get more troops for Afghanistan – though the new "Afpak" review indicates such troops are needed even for the civil building that Europeans say will aid in "mission accomplished" there.
But the "Obama in Europe" storyline runs deeper than a difficult diplomatic checklist that includes Russia, Iran, North Korea, and the global crisis, say political thinkers here. It has to do with a Europe that, for 40 years, and in significant strides, has sought to speak with one voice.
For almost a decade, Europe and America, tied by history, drifted apart in terms of stated values and policy. But with an avowedly liberal internationalist at the US helm, Europe has less to complain about. Ahead of his visit, in inconclusive meetings in Brussels, there was uncertainty and bickering. What's causing stress in the European Union is not US badgering and unilateralism, but the Obama dynamic of moving toward agreement, concensus, and multilateralism, say some economists and political scientists.
"President Bush was an extraordinary catalyst for Europe, a bogeyman. Even people with diverging views on economic and foreign policy were united against the US policy," says Karim Bitar, a Paris consultant and scholar at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations. "But now the US can no longer be accused of all the world's ills. The truth is, Europeans now think more about America than about Europe. There is no European consensus on the most basic questions of our future, what we should be. Under Bush, we could evade them. Not now."
Europe's internal conflict over the Russian war in Georgia last summer, and the crisis over interrupted oil and gas supplies to Europe this winter, were indicators of division in what is still an economic union struggling to achieve political solidarity.
The question is whether Europe can find its voice when there is basic agreement with Washington.
"When the Europeans agree with the US, they often disagree with each other," as a European diplomat puts it.