Europe's off-again, on-again crush on Obama

Europe wants a strong US lead – as long as it's in the 'right' direction.

It's time to revise the revisionist European view of President Barack Obama.

Conventional wisdom first had it – as attested by the 200,000 ecstatic Germans who cheered on the presidential candidate in Berlin last summer – that the charmed Mr. Obama could do no wrong.

Yet well before their favorite candidate got elected, European pundits changed their minds.

Obama would be really hard to deal with, many agreed, because he would be so nice. European governments might say no when a confrontational George W. Bush leaned on them to send a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan. They could hardly refuse, however, when Obama earnestly solicited ideas from his transatlantic partners – and then smiled and invited them to send those thousands of soldiers to the Hindu Kush to implement their own ideas.

Now, a month after the inauguration, European policymakers who have been dealing with the new American team are arguably closer to the first than to the second view.

No, they don't trust Obama to be infallible any more than they trust themselves to be infallible. But by all indications, they are persuaded that their recommendations are taken seriously in the White House. And they are convinced that the joint wisdom of the transatlantic crowd will lead to rather better policies in the crises of 2009 than would solo decisions by what is still the world's only superpower.

To be clear about it, the Europeans – including even French President Nicolas Sarkozy, up to a point – do want strong American leadership, just as long as the US leads them in the direction they want to go. And even though the administration has not yet defined its foreign policy concretely, the Europeans increasingly respect Obama's awareness of both soft and hard power. They also seem to regard his zeal for pragmatic course correction as taking them in the right direction.

Thus, they are reassured by his early signals: closing the Guantánamo prison; putting the brakes on untried strategic missile defense deployment in Central Europe; according urgency to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation; postponing the divisive issue of Georgian and Ukrainian accession to NATO; seeking regional rather than bilateral solutions for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran; and, as it turns out, not prodding the Germans to increase their combat troops in Afghanistan, but asking them instead to expand their key civil construction projects there.

At this early stage of the new administration, such harbingers might be dismissed as no more than stylistic placeholders for the substance of Obama's foreign policy that has yet to emerge. Yet style sometimes turns into substance.

Washington's innovation in the late 1940s, for example, in drawing European allies into rules-based institutions that would restrain not only these allies, but also the American superpower itself, made the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sustainable.

The US forbearance proved to be anything but naive. In the end it was Soviet authoritarianism, and not democratic consensus, that buckled. NATO, the world's longest-lived alliance, will celebrate its 60th anniversary this April – along with all the former Warsaw Pact members that lined up to join it and the European Union after Soviet troops withdrew from their territory.

So thoroughly did the Europeans internalize the consensus style introduced by Washington after 1945, that they adopted and expanded on it as the EU's own method of decisionmaking.

As they appraise the fledgling president after his first State-of-the-Union-like address, European officials welcome Obama's return to this transatlantic tradition. And they have high hopes that he will be not only a consulting president, but also a strong leader who will now and then force the crowd to end the palaver and act – in concert.

Elizabeth Pond, a former Monitor correspondent, is a Berlin-based author and journalist.

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