Jae C. Hong/AP
President-elect Obama waves after
speaking at the Victory Column in Berlin.

Excitement and Apprehension Await Obama in Europe

January 02, 2009 07:32 AM
by Christopher Coats
After eight years of strain, observers predict a renewed relationship between Europe and the United States, but many warn that the road to reconciliation will not be easy.

Moving Forward With Europe

Burdened by policy disagreements, especially concerning the handling of the war in Iraq, Europe and the United States have faced a strained relationship for much of President Bush’s tenure.

While the Bush administration has viewed EU countries as uncooperative, European nations have viewed the United States under Bush as unwilling to take part in collaborative governance on global issues, such as the fight against terrorism and global warming; Voice of America’s André de Nesnera called it the “follow us or get out of the way” policy.

However, a Pew Research poll conducted earlier this year found that a large majority of EU citizens believed that an Obama administration would result in “change for the better” in regards to U.S. foreign policy.

Despite a warming of relations with EU leaders following the outgoing president’s final tour across the continent earlier this year, analysts feel there is still much to be done to close the gap.

The incoming administration has attempted to downplay Obama’s ability to influence European policy and repair the relationship overnight, but some have suggested a restored EU-U.S. relationship will be pivotal to overcoming the many challenges a new president faces.

“With a to-do list that includes keeping an eye on uranium enrichment in Iran, a resurgent Russia, NATO expansion, European missile defense, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis, Obama may need all the help he can get from Europe,” wrote the Deutsche Welle staff.

Citing the EU’s $17 trillion collective GDP, the largest in the world, and the fact that the continent hosts 2 of the top 5 military budgets in the world, Matthew Yglesias suggests that closing the gap should be high on Obama’s list of priorities.

“It’s not as scary as the Middle East or as sexy as rising powers like China and India (and, sometimes, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa), but in many respects, the most important region for U.S. foreign policy in 2008 is the same as it was in 1908 or 1808—Europe,” wrote Yglesias.

Although, polls across Europe show broad support and high hopes for the incoming administration, many have warned against overexuberance and have voiced concern about how much burden European countries will be asked to take on when it comes to the challenges of rejuvenating the global economy and how best to handle Afghanistan.

“There’s excitement and enthusiasm about his election, but as you indicated, some apprehension among European leaders about how much responsibility they will be asked to shoulder,” William Drozdiak, the president of the American Council on Germany, told the Council on Foreign Relations.

Impact: Hurdles on the way to harmony

A possible point of contention between the incoming Obama administration and European leaders comes with the new president’s plan to increase troop presence in Afghanistan; a move that would likely require military commitments from EU countries.

Other possible points of disagreement may come with the debate over whether the Ukraine and Georgia should be allowed to join NATO, the progress of a missile defense shield planned for eastern Europe and finally how best to approach the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Background: An uncomfortable alliance

Bush encountered strong resistance in Europe throughout his presidency, beginning with complaints about his administration’s approach to global warming. Although he received a boost of sympathy and popularity following the attacks of Sept. 11, his administration’s push for war in Iraq severed ties with many EU leaders.

His administration’s use of the term “Old Europe” to describe those Western countries unwilling to support the invasion of Iraq was also seen as exploiting a rift between Western and Eastern European countries.

Although many of these contentious relationships have faded as leaders such as France’s Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder have been voted out of office, a general sense of unease has surrounded the Bush administration in Europe.

The president’s final trip to Europe saw a degree a thawing in the relationship with the EU, but some attributed the absence of protests, frequent during his first term, to the realization that Bush would soon be leaving office.

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