Why the EU should stand by Obama

Following President Obama?s mauling in this week?s midterm elections, European diplomats will doubtless be working on memos to their ministers with titles like ?The Transatlantic Alliance and the Tea Party?. Richard Gowan suggests what they should say.

Senior Policy Fellow

Dear Boss,

You will have read about the US election results with a mix of shock and Schadenfreude.

Shock, because it is disconcerting to see an iconic politician lose so much support so fast.

Schadenfreude, because ? let?s be honest ? Obama and the EU have often got on pretty dreadfully. The transatlantic relationship has been strained by everything from deep tensions with Germany over the Greek bailout to worries about Britain?s defence cuts.

So, while few European politicians are going to fall for the Tea Party, it must be tempting to conclude that there isn?t much point in cultivating Obama?s friendship any longer.

As Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman argued this week, ?Obama may just be an interlude,? and the US could return to George W Bush-style nationalism very soon.

A few decades ? even a few years ? from now, historians may conclude that Rachman was right. But, as a politician rather than a historian, you cannot just sit back and wait.

Instead, you should do something that will probably feel counterintuitive right now. You need to signal that, for all his problems, you still want to be President Obama?s friend.

There is one fundamental reason for this: Iran.

However constrained the president is at home, the single biggest challenge on his agenda in the next two years may be the growing Iran crisis. Washington faces not only clear signs that the Iranians are continuing to develop nuclear weapons but also blunt warnings from Israel that it will act militarily to handle this threat – most probably one to two years from now.

Pessimists in Washington believe that this would inevitably suck the US into direct conflict with Iran. As foreign policy experts Dana Allin and Steven Simon note in their new book, The Sixth Crisis, this spiral could ignite a war ?that could destroy all of Obama?s other ambitions?.

A head-on collision with the Iranians would not only precipitate a regional crisis, but complicate horribly relations with China and Russia. This threat, not the loud but hollow cries of the Tea Party, is likely to shape the Obama presidency from now until the 2012 elections. The administration appears to be using every tool available ? from UN sanctions to covert operations ? to prevent such a destabilising clash in the Middle East.

While EU leaders may differ with the Obama administration on issues from economic austerity to climate change, this is one case where they urgently need him to succeed.

It is also a case where the Europeans can still play a prominent role ? unlike, for example, in America?s efforts to contain Chinese ambitions in the Pacific. Europe is an established player in negotiations with the Iranians. High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Catherine Ashton will be meeting with negotiators from Tehran this month, and the EU has ratcheted up its sanctions this year.

At a moment in which the American president?s credibility has been shaken, his European allies need to underline and strengthen their commitment to containing Iran?s ambitions ? at the UN, in contacts with the Chinese and Russians and in the Middle East.

Even if Barack Obama now has to invest time and political capital shoring up his position at home, European governments should continue to collaborate as closely as possible with his administration on the Iran file. There is no time to wait to for his successor.

Yes boss, I know this all sounds like a dangerous gamble. That is just what it is. But European leaders should not use American weakness as an excuse for inaction ? doing so would only make the EU look even weaker in the eyes of Iran, the US and everyone else.

This article was first published by E!Sharp

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

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Senior Policy Fellow