What now?

Once he enters office, President Obama will bring a profound challenge to the comfortable introversion of many EU governments

For much of the last few years, European leaders have been happier providing a running commentary on the failings of the Bush administration than taking responsibility for global problems themselves.  Barack Obama’s election brings that era to a decisive close. 

When he arrives in Europe for his first trip as president, European publics will line the streets, while their leaders queue for photo-ops.  But Obama’s visit will also pose a profound challenge to the comfortable introversion of many European governments.

Many pundits have predicted a crisis of expectations.  No matter how liberal Obama’s administration will be – it will still be more impatient, more focused on national security, and more willing to use military force than its European partners.  But tensions are as likely to be driven by the relative ambitions of the two blocs as by any differences in ideology. 

The biggest shock to Europeans will be the discovery that the natural corollary of Obama’s determination to break with Bush’s unilateralism is a desire for tangible assistance from Europeans.

Obama famously wants to shift resources from the ‘bad’ war in Iraq to the good one in Afghanistan. But, no matter how much European governments try to manage down expectations on what they can deliver, he is unlikely to be satisfied with a re-badging of existing commitments. If Europe remains unwilling to make the necessary military contribution to ISAF – and the US becomes forced to “surge” unilaterally, as it did in Iraq – an Obama administration could conclude that Europeans have little to offer as a war-fighting support.

On Iran, the EU is delighted that Obama has signalled a willingness to engage with the mullahs, but they will also need to contemplate much tougher sanctions if diplomatic overtures fail to deliver.

Europeans are asking Obama to begin his presidency with a push for peace in the Middle East rather than waiting till the end of his term. But are they ready – or even able – to supply the blood and treasure needed to be a “co-sponsor” of a deal.

On issue after issue – from Darfur to climate change – Obama will expose the gulf between European rhetoric and  capability. Even when it comes to closing Guantanamo Bay, Europeans will be called on to absorb those detainees – around 50 – that the US would like to release, but who cannot be returned to their home countries because they would be likely to be tortured.

When Warren Christopher made his first trip to the Balkans as Secretary of State for President Clinton, he asked European leaders what their vision was for the Balkans.  He was not prepared for the awkward silence that followed.  The French Presidency has worked hard to ensure that Obama’s envoy has a less shakey start.  European foreign ministers have agreed on a letter to the new president of the United States that sets out four shared European priorities.  But media reports suggest that the issues they have chosen – and the meagre resources they have put on the table – are more likely to lead to a crisis of expectations than a trans-Atlantic honeymoon.   

European leaders have just 72 days between the election and the inauguration to close the gap between rhetoric and reality; to work out what they want to do in the world, and what resources they are willing to commit.  It is vital to start a structured process now – amongst Europeans – so that the EU can approach the incoming administration with a shared plan of action – backed by European commitments – rather than a shopping list of complaints.

In a series of articles over the next few weeks, ECFR fellows will suggest areas that the EU should focus on. We will end by setting out some ideas on how European leaders could re-wire the institutions of the trans-Atlantic relationship.


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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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