Four years after Barack Obama's landmark speech in front of a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin, the transatlantic alliance is fading fast. What went wrong?
John McCain may have called Barack Obama the biggest celebrity in the world, but the place that has held the US president closest to its collective heart has always been Europe. When he took to the stage in Berlin on July 24, 2008, a crowd of 200,000 Germans abandoned their usual reserve to flood screaming and cheering into the Tiergarten.
They came to see an aspiring American president give flesh to all of Europe's fantasies about American leadership: multiethnic and multilateral; pragmatic and peacefully minded; social democratic in his goals and so eloquent in their expression. Obama promised to purge the sins of George W. Bush and give new impetus to the alliance for a new century. “America has no better partner than Europe” he said.
The paradox is that while Obama successfully healed the transatlantic rift, he may also be the American president who presided over the end of the West as a political community.
Four years on from Berlin, Obama would still trade his approval ratings in any European country with those in his native United States. In June, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey showed that nine out of 10 voters in France (92 percent) and Germany (89 percent) would like to see him reelected, as would large majorities in Britain (73 percent), Spain (71 percent), Italy (69 percent) and the Czech Republic (67 percent). And at a tactical level, Europeans and Americans are cooperating more closely – on a range of issues from Iran to Syria – than they have for many years. Even when they disagree, they do so with civility and a surprising absence of rancor.
But Obama's stellar personal ratings in Europe hide the fact that the Western alliance has never loomed smaller in the imagination of policymakers on either side of the Atlantic.
Seen from Washington, there is not a single problem in the world to be looked at primarily through a transatlantic prism. Although the administration looks first to Europeans as partners in any of its global endeavours – from dealing with Iran's nuclear program to stopping genocide in Syria – it no longer sees the European theatre as its core problem or seeks a partnership of equals with Europeans. It was not until the eurozone looked like it might collapse – threatening to bring down the global economy and with it Obama's chances of reelection – that the president became truly interested in Europe.
Conversely, Europeans have never cared less about what the United States thinks. Germany, traditionally among the most Atlanticist of European countries, has led the pack. Many German foreign policy makers think it was simply a tactical error for Berlin to line up with Moscow and Beijing against Washington on Libya. But there is nothing accidental about the way Berlin has systematically refused even to engage with American concerns over German policy on the euro. During the Bush years, Europeans who were unable to influence the strategy of the White House would give a running commentary on American actions in lieu of a substantive policy. They had no influence in Washington, so they complained. But now, the tables are turned, with Obama passing continual judgment on German policy while Chancellor Angela Merkel stoically refuses to heed his advice. Europeans who for many years were infantilised by the transatlantic alliance, either using sycophancy and self-delusion about a “special relationship” to advance their goals or, in the case of Jacques Chirac's France, pursuing the even more futile goal of balancing American power, have finally come to realise that they can no longer outsource their security or their prosperity to Uncle Sam.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the ties that held the alliance together are weakening. On the American side, Obama's biography links him to the Pacific and Africa but not to the old continent. His personal story echoes the demographic changes in the United States that have reduced the influence of Americans of European origin. Meanwhile, on the European side, the depth of the euro crisis has crowded out almost all foreign policy from the agenda of Europe's top decision-makers. The end of the Cold War means that Europeans no longer need American protection, and the US financial crisis has led to a fall in American demand for European products (although US exports to Europe are at an all-time high).
What's more, Obama's lack of warmth has precluded him from establishing the sorts of human relationships with European leaders that animate alliances. When asked to name his closest allies, Obama mentions non-European leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Lee Myung-bak of South Korea. And his transactional nature has led to a neglect of countries that he feels will not contribute more to the relationship – within a year of being elected, Obama had managed to alienate the leaders of most of Europe's big states, from Gordon Brown to Nicolas Sarkozy to Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Americans hardly remember, but Europe's collective nose was put out of joint by Obama's refusal to make the trip to Europe for the 2010 EU-US summit. More recently, Obama has reached out to allies to counteract the impression that the only way to get a friendly reception in Washington is to be a problem nation – but far too late to erase the sense that Europe matters little to this American president.
Underlying these superficial issues is a more fundamental divergence in the way Europe and the United States are coping with their respective declines. As the EU's role shrinks in the world, Europeans have sought to help build a multilateral, rule-based world. That is why it is they, rather than the Chinese or the Americans, that have pushed for the creation of institutionalised global responses to climate change, genocide, or various trade disputes. To the extent that today's world has not collapsed into the deadlocked chaos of a “G-zero”, it is often due to European efforts to create a functioning institutional order.
To Washington's eternal frustration, however, Europeans have not put their energies into becoming a full partner on global issues. For all the existential angst of the euro crisis, Europe is not as weak as people think it is. It still has the world's largest market and represents 17 percent of world trade, compared with 12 percent for the United States. Even in military terms, the EU is the world's No. 2 military power, with 21 percent of the world's military spending, versus 5 percent for China, 3 percent for Russia, 2 percent for India, and 1.5 percent for Brazil, according to Harvard scholar Joseph Nye. But, ironically for a people who have embraced multilateralism more than any other on Earth, Europeans have not pooled their impressive economic, political, and military resources. And with the eurozone's need to resolve the euro crisis, the EU may split into two or more tiers – making concerted action even more difficult. As a result, European power is too diffuse to be much of a help or a hindrance on many issues.
On the other hand, Obama's United States – although equally committed to liberal values – thinks that the best way to safeguard American interests and values is to craft a multipartner world. On the one hand, Obama continues to believe that he can transform rising powers by integrating them into existing institutions (despite much evidence to the contrary). On the other, he thinks that Europe's over-representation in existing institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is a threat to the consolidation of that order. This is leading a declining America to increasingly turn against Europe on issues ranging from climate change to currencies. The most striking example came at the 2009 G-20 in Pittsburgh, when Obama worked together with the emerging powers to pressure Europeans to give up their voting power at the IMF. As Walter Russell Mead, the US international relations scholar, has written, “[I]ncreasingly it will be in the American interest to help Asian powers rebalance the world power structure in ways that redistribute power from the former great powers of Europe to the rising great powers of Asia today.”
But the long-term consequence of the cooling of this unique alliance could be the hollowing out of the world order that the Atlantic powers have made. The big unwritten story of the last few decades is the way that a European-inspired liberal economic and political order has been crafted in the shell of the American security order. It is an order that limits the powers of states and markets and puts the protection of individuals at its core. If the United States was the sheriff of this order, the EU was its constitutional court. And now it is being challenged by the emerging powers.
Countries like Brazil, China, and India are all relatively new states forged by movements of national liberation whose experience of globalisation has been bound up with their new sense of nationhood. While globalisation is destroying sovereignty for the West, these former colonies are enjoying it on a scale never experienced before. As a result, they are not about to invite their former colonial masters to interfere in their internal affairs. Just look at the dynamics of the United Nations Security Council on issues from Sudan to Syria. Even in the General Assembly, the balance of power is shifting: 10 years ago, China won 43 percent of the votes on human rights in the United Nations, far behind Europe's 78 percent. But in 2010-11, the EU won less than 50 percent to China's nearly 60 percent, according to research by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Rather than being transformed by global institutions, China's sophisticated multilateral diplomacy is changing the global order itself.
As relative power flows Eastward, it is perhaps inevitable that the Western alliance that kept liberty's flame alight during the Cold War and then sought to construct a liberal order in its aftermath is fading fast. It was perhaps inevitable that both Europeans and Americans should fail to live up to each other's expectations of their respective roles in a post-Cold War world. After all, America is still too powerful to happily commit to a multilateral world order (as evidenced by Congress's reluctance to ratify treaties). And Europe is too physically safe to be willing to match US defense spending or pool its resources. What is surprising is that the passing of this alliance has not been mourned by many on either side. The legacy of Barack Obama is that the transatlantic relationship is at its most harmonious and yet least relevant in 50 years. Ironically, it may take the election of someone who is less naturally popular on the European stage for both sides to wake up and realise just what is at stake.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.