How Europe can respond to Obama

How will we react when Barack Obama asks us to put our unity, soldiers, money and resolve where our mouths have been?

This article was published in the Financial Times on 25 November 2008.

Europe beware. Sometimes in life you get what you have asked for. The result is not always comfortable.

Since 2001, European politicians have bemoaned the lack of a Washington administration that believed in multilateralism. We Europeans have been able to define ourselves in opposition to President George W. Bush and his “my way or the highway” approach to international affairs. For Europe, the 43rd president was a sort of solution in the search for our own global vocation.

“If only we had a real multilateralist across the Atlantic we could do such things … ” The sentence was not usually completed. Well, now we appear to have got the president of our dreams – Barack Obama, the man for whom 200,000 Berliners turned out to cheer. So what will we say when he comes calling and asks us to put our resolve, money, unity and soldiers where our mouths have been? Maybe we will look back with nostalgia to the days of Bush-Cheney. Having a unilateralist in Washington made it so easy to be multilateralists in Brussels.

Here are half a dozen things Europeans could do to show that our multilateralism is more than a vacuous slogan.

First, since we have not been significant players in the Middle East in the years when the Americans have been absent, it is not easy to see what role we could possibly have when Washington gets involved again in Palestine-Israel diplomacy. The Quartet (sans trois most of the time) anyway puts the United Nations in the invidious position of acting as bag-carrier for the US. Let Europe announce that it is prepared, instead of hovering in the wings of Middle East diplomacy, to take responsibility for trying to bring a semblance of peace and stability to the Congo, where 45,000 people die on average each month in the deadliest conflict since the second world war. Europe should put money, men and concerted diplomatic effort into the Congo where we have, to be fair, intervened helpfully in the past, for example in Ituri in 2003. We should be present on the ground until the job is done.

Second, when President-elect Obama asks, as he surely will, for a greater European military commitment in Afghanistan, the non-fighting Nato members should be prepared to join Britain, the Netherlands, Poland and Denmark in the trouble spots of the south and east. Failing that, they should put more of their own money into the training and support of Afghan soldiers and police officers. It is certainly necessary to have a political as well as a military strategy, but the former is not possible without greater security on the ground.

Third, with poor countries inevitably the hardest hit by the global economic storms – remittances, inward investment and exports will all fall – development assistance will become even more important for them. The EU member states should pledge that, even though they face public spending difficulties at home, they will stick to their promise to double aid to Africa by 2010.

Fourth, the EU countries should make clear, at the heads of government meeting in December, that despite the recession they will keep their climate change commitments to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 on 1990 levels and to meet a 20 per cent renewables target by the same date. This undertaking should not be made conditional on what others do. It is right on it own terms. We should get on and do it.

Fifth, with emerging economies such as India and China hiding behind bogus arguments about food security to block a conclusion to the Doha round, the EU should at least throw its weight into the scales to prevent any retreat into more sophisticated forms of protectionism. We are threatened by “green” tariffs, allegedly to penalise those who have not done enough on global warming, and by the construction of investment stockades to keep out sovereign wealth funds, particularly those run by authoritarian states. Either of these economically illiterate measures would promote tit-for-tat retaliation and set us on the slide to more extreme measures of protectionism.

Europe, led perhaps by its hyper-energetic present Council president, Nicolas Sarkozy, should make clear that it will have nothing to do with back-door barriers against free trade. Colbert should be put back in his mausoleum.

Finally, with Europe now in discussion about reforms of the global financial architecture (which seems to have attracted much of the blame for the consequences of bad national macro-economic policies) perhaps the most helpful first step towards more effective financial multilateralism would be to reduce Europe’s International Monetary Fund voting rights and World Bank status to something closer to our share of global gross domestic product. That would make room for the emerging economies, such as China and Brazil. In view of his long years as chairman of the IMF Ministerial Committee, it is surprising that Gordon Brown was not able to push this through long ago.

In a sensible world, there would be one European voice at the IMF and World Bank, and we would give up our seigneurial rights to nominate the head of the Fund. Britain, France and Germany would, of course, fight to the last pound and euro to prevent these changes.

Doubtless President Obama will have his own ideas about what Europe’s commitment to multilateralism might mean in practice. But these suggestions would set Europe off on the right footing with the new administration. After all, we do want to work with Washington, don’t we?

Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, is chancellor of Oxford University. His most recent book is ‘What Next? Surviving the 21st Century’. He is also a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.



The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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