An American President named Hussein will
travel to tomorrow Cairo
to make an historic overture to the Islamic world. He will stress his
determination to replace the hostility of the Bush years with a new era of
mutual respect; and he will point to his readiness to tackle the core issue of Palestine from the outset
of his presidency as evidence of his good faith.
This is audacious stuff. Yet it is only the
latest of a series of such dramatic openings, through which President Obama is
attempting to do nothing less than to reshape the global order.
The economic crisis arguably forced the
rapprochement with China
(the ‘emerging’ power that has now emerged, as the big winner from the world’s
financial turmoil). But no such circumstance prompted the move to ‘re-set’
relations with Russia; or the
journeys to mend fences with Latin America and with Turkey;
or the extension of the hand to Tehran.
These are all products of a deliberate policy.
The unilateral moment has passed. America had its few short years as hyperpower,
and it did neither America
nor the world much good. Now, before our eyes, Obama is repositioning the US at the centre of a web of global bilateral
partnerships – the ‘G2′ economic relationship with China,
the nuclear relationship with Russia,
and so on. As in a Venn diagram, Obama is placing the US at that
central point where all the different ellipses overlap. First among equals, and
Where, one might wonder, does this leave Europe? Europeans have grown used to the thought that the
transatlantic relationship is the foundation of the international order.
Following the difficult years of the Bush presidency, Obama has duly sought to
restore transatlantic harmony as well, visiting Europe
in April and, there too, extending the hand of partnership. He got very little back
for his pains, whether in terms of help on Afghanistan or of support in
stimulating the global economy. But if he lost sleep over this tepid European
response, he showed no signs of it. In the new Obama world order, transatlantic
relations are not the foundation, but just one of the Venn diagram’s ellipses –
as substantial, or not, as Europeans choose to make it.
Whilst Europeans chew on that, they should
also reflect on what this week’s speech in Cairo
by the new American president could mean for their own position in the Middle East. Europe has
long cherished the belief that centuries of history and the facts of geography,
not to mention more recent patterns of immigration, have given them some sort
of special relationship with the Islamic world – an often strained and
sometimes bloody relationship, it is true, but nonetheless one based on deep
mutual familiarity. In European eyes, Americans dealing with Islam lack such
sophisticated understanding, and often have no interest in acquiring it, seeing
the land around and beyond Israel
as populated largely by greedy oil sheikhs and dangerous religious fanatics.
Like all caricatures, this European view
has had some truth to it. And, though Europeans have lamented that fate has
allocated the real power in the Middle East to their crass cousins, they have
nonetheless done pretty well there, not least commercially, out of simply not
Now, listening to Obama in Cairo, they will
have to ask themselves whether this is not another aspect of how the world
works and the position which Europe occupies in it which is about to change.
Expect a fine speech, and European applause
– and listen for the growing undertone of anxiety that this bold young US president has just helped himself to some
more of Europe’s clothes.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.