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The Obama Challenge: is Europe Just a Spectator?

Among my European friends (and that includes the British), Barack Obama’s task is simply stated.

First, he should stop throwing America’s weight around; next he should deploy his country’s unmatched might to solve the world’s myriad problems. If he consults closely, Mr Obama can be assured that his allies will give of their best: they will cheer him loudly from the security of the sidelines.

There has been much talk lately that the world, and Europe in particular, is destined to be disappointed in Mr Obama. To my mind it would be more tactful to wait at least until he has taken the oath of office before losing faith in this remarkable politician. But if we are talking about disillusionment, it is worth asking on which side of the Atlantic it might set in first.

Watching the feebleness of Europe’s response to the latest interruption of its gas supplies from Russia or the dispatch of competing delegations to the Middle East, one wonders if Europe will be trying Mr Obama’s patience long before the new US administration is accused of letting down its friends.

In advance of the hoopla of next week’s inauguration, the messages in Europe are mixed. Publicly, policymakers talk of reviving the old transatlantic alliance; privately they fret that expectations are so high that they are bound to be dashed.

European leaders have yet to address what Mr Obama might reasonably expect of his allies. The semblance of a common European approach to Russia’s new assertiveness, perhaps? A policy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict that reaches beyond what Lord Patten, the former European external affairs commissioner, once called a solemn strategy of “attending meetings of the Quartet”?

Behind this lies the deeper ambivalence about Washington’s role. Most Europeans want the US to continue to exercise global leadership. The alternatives, after all, are unappealing. The contradiction lies in the caveats: Washington must not challenge European sensibilities or ask too much of its allies.

Thus while Mr Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq wins universal applause, his determination to reinforce Nato’s effort in Afghanistan is cause for foreboding. One of the refrains I have heard often in recent weeks is that the new president cannot expect Europe to send more troops to Afghanistan until there is a credible political strategy. That seems an eminently sensible condition. More than six years after the toppling of the Taliban, Afghanistan remains a mess. But how will, say, Germany and Italy respond if Mr Obama picks up the ball and produces just such a strategic plan?

I do not want to be overly pessimistic. There is plenty of goodwill on both sides. Hillary Clinton, awaiting confirmation as secretary of state, turned in an assured performance at her Senate confirmation hearings this week. Though she spoke in generalities, the welcome worldview was of someone looking to make friends for America rather than search out enemies.

For all the contradictions mentioned above, I caught a similarly upbeat tone at an excellent conference hosted in Washington last month by Aspen Italia. European leaders want to catch some of Mr Obama’s stardust. And deep down there is an acceptance that they must stump up the entry fee if they want to be taken seriously at the White House. Mr Obama’s popularity among European electorates should make it easier for governments to find that fee.

There are plenty of good reasons why Europe and the US should strive to build a new alliance. The central geopolitical truth of the coming years will be the progressive erosion of the effortless hegemony the west has exercised over global affairs for the past two centuries. There could be no more important time to champion the values it has embedded in the present multilateral order.

What the US and Europe cannot do, however, is simply to start again where they left off eight years ago. A cohesive transatlantic community must be rebuilt on three pillars.

The first is humility. In America’s case that means recognition that its power is insufficient as well as indispensable in the effort to create a stable world order. Allies are a vital source of legitimacy.

For Europe it demands a recognition that the postmodern world of cuddly multilateralism that some imagined would come to pass after the fall of the Berlin Wall has not materialised. The US war in Iraq may have tested to destruction the efficacy of unilateral military might. But events since 1989 have shown also that normative, or soft, power is an inadequate answer to conflict and disorder. Europe needs to accept more of the burden of action.

The second pillar is realism – a strong relationship can be built only on an honest assessment of the possible. The old cold war alliance cannot be revived. Without the existential threat of the Soviet Union, the new alliance is much more one of choice rather than necessity. America’s security interests, as Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in these pages earlier this week, have shifted to Asia and the Middle East. Europeans, for their part, feel less compelled to shelter under the US nuclear umbrella. So there will be frequent occasions when strategic perspectives differ.

Yet almost any list of threats and challenges – from climate change and weapons proliferation to the Middle East conflict, from Afghanistan and al-Qaeda to Russian bellicosity – shows a strong coincidence of interests. What is required is the political will to keep this understanding at the centre of the relationship.

The third prerequisite is imagination. The instinct of politicians and policymakers is to put issues into silos: the Middle East is for this week, Russia for next, Iran for the week after that; climate change and nonproliferation can wait a month or two. The challenge here is to admit the complexities and make the connections. Not just the obvious ones, such as between Islamist extremism in Pakistan and the war in Afghanistan, but across a broader geopolitical sweep. What is the incentive, say, for China to play the role of responsible stakeholder in the effort to forestall a nuclear Iran when the US and Europe refuse to share power in global institutions?

The old alliance was never quite as perfect as it sometimes seems in retrospect; and the uncomfortable realities of a world in which power is flowing eastwards mean that things can never be as they were. That is not a reason to miss the opportunity that now presents itself.-Financial Times

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