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.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
President Barack Obama attended the G-20 summit at the ExCel Centre in London on Thursday. Can Europe find its voice when there is basic agreement with Washington?

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.

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.

It is not lost on Europeans that, almost immediately, the new administration signaled an end to what many here saw as egregious differences. Obama is closing Guantánamo, seizing initiatives on the economy, and moving on the Kyoto climate-change protocols through energy chief Stephen Chu, who is widely respected here. One comment repeated by opinion leaders here is the "calm" that Obama exhibits, given his challenges.

Laurent Joffrin, editor of the left-leaning Liberation newspaper in Paris, notes that "Barack Obama, in this crisis, is more skillful than his counterparts in the Old Continent. Why? First and foremost because he is less orthodox. Having been elected to fight the recession, the American president is showing energy and freshness...."

Mr. Jossrin goes on to ask European leaders to rethink the "divisions" caused by the unfinished European project of unity.

Not all intellectuals are dispirited. Pierre Hassner, at Sciences Po in Paris, says that a "deeper communality" with Obama may emerge if the US doesn't get lost in an Afghan quagmire. "He wants a basic rapprochement with Europe, and we feel he is someone to talk to," he says. "An evolution is under way. This is a time when the mood and the prevalent ideas are in sync. For a long time, Europe was going left and America was going right. Now is everyone seems pragmatic and centrist."

Unlike President Kennedy, who grew up going to Europe, or President Clinton, who studied for two years at Oxford University in Britain, Obama has few personal ties here. In his book "Dreams From my Father," Obama tells of going to Kenya by way of Paris and Barcelona, Spain.

He was impressed with the old world, but didn't feel part of it: "It wasn't that Europe wasn't beautiful; everything was just as I'd imagined it. It just wasn't mine. I felt as if I were living out someone else's romance."

Now the romance is real. In a February poll, Obama's approval among the French was 92 percent, with the Italians at 90 percent, and the Germans at 82 percent, according to the right-leaning Le Figaro. Even this week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, partly to explain whether he would or wouldn't bolt from the G-20: "I trust Obama."

What Europeans may find surprising is that Obama "was elected to look after America's interests," as Mr. Bitar puts it. "There's going to be tension in the relationship. But for now, the honeymoon is definitely on."

Part of this is attributable to Obama's profile. The "first couple" met the queen at Buckingham Palace, and the two women broke protocol with a "sisters" moment.

But the Indonesia- and Hawaii-raised Obama reaches deeply into a Europe far more ethnically diverse.

At a 24-hour grocery "Superette" on Avenue Versailles in Paris, run by a Moroccan family, French rap music plays with lyrics interlaced with Obama speeches.

"We like Obama, he's intelligent," says Hassan, touching his index finger to his temple. "We think he's for peace."

John Kornblum, a former senior US diplomat now with an international legal firm in Berlin, says transatlantic relations must negotiate cultural and institutional differences in a time of crisis.

"Europeans feel the US should be interested in building Europe as an entity," he notes. "They feel the future depends on Europe becoming unified. Obama takes Europe seriously, but as a partner in a journey, and not as the goal of the journey."

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