Apr 05 2009

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POTUS the Novice

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The G-20 meeting in London and NATO summit in Strasbourg have highlighted an enduring dilemma for Barack Obama; how to use the President’s popularity to force actionable results for his international economic and foreign policy initiatives. In so doing, the meetings also raise a larger issue regarding the effective use of the Administration’s international political capital.

In matters of atmosphere at the G-20, Obama’s popularity worked to the President’s advantage. The European elite were virtually giddy with the President’s arrival, taking every opportunity to contrast Obama’s fresh, smooth, internationalist collaboration with that of the hated west Texas, free market, national interest politics of his predecessor.

And as the current global sensation, Obama was the photo-op of choice as the G-20 leaders bustled to line up and mug with him to bolster credibility and curb appeal back home. Gordon Brown, the Summit host, took this slavishness to a new level with remarks so fawning in content as to leave some wondering if he is auditioning as “Obama’s poodle.”

But beyond atmospherics, the Obama dilemma was – effectively – the European paradox; how to welcome an ideological cohort, and co-opt his popularity, while effectively eschewing his policy prescriptions.

Here, Harvard met Oxford.  Axelrod met Machiavelli.

It was over before it started.

Team Obama’s knee-jerk multilateralism was certainly helpful, allowing the Europeans to run the table with reckless abandon and produce a stream of ego-enhancing puff prescriptions that seek to fence-in American ambition while the Euros basked in the comfort of renewed status, legitimacy and partnership.

Obama openly yielded to European sensibilities on the proper death of the “Washington Consensus;” a shift away from 20 years of reliance on free trade and free markets that has – until this year – fueled stunning economic growth around the planet, in favor of gauzy and vaguely disquieting multilateral action, increased regulation, environmental protection and social justice.

This costs the pampered socialist states of the EU, which have sponged off the economic and defense umbrella of the United States for more than half a century, not a thing.  It is a harbinger of far more consequential implications for the US if Obama is actually serious about it here at home.

However, on the substance that mattered to Obama, American acts of comity and good will came for naught in the face of determined European opposition.

Consider economic recovery.

Team Obama came to London hoping for a G-20 commitment to spend two percent of their respective GDP’s for government-directed, economic stimulus.

But that approach and proposal was dead before Obama landed, surprisingly and adamantly opposed by the very leaders that make up the core of Obama’s cheering squad. Clearly there was a bigger fear of budget deficits than defying Obama. Instead, the President was forced to accept the substitute of platitudes of national cooperation in the service of jobs creation and economic growth.

So, an American president signs off on a new leftist and collectivist international economic policy while the Europeans take a hard line against the US on additional public spending in the name of fiscal restraint?

Imagine the group chuckle they’re having at the Heritage Foundation…..

And Team Obama fared no better in foreign policy. While the final communiqué is full of unity and purpose, the American request for tangible help in the war in Afghanistan was met with an insipid chorus of grunts, finger pointing and silence.

So the heavy lifting will be left to the United States alone; again.

Given these outcomes in the context of a half century of American “investments” in European economic recovery and defense, it is no small wonder that Obama didn’t simply seek to oust his hosts like the Chairman of GM.

More seriously, the results beg an obvious question.

Until now, it has been conventional wisdom that ideological enmity divided Europe from the US, preventing a concert of cooperation and harmonious multilateral action.

The change in Administrations in Washington was, above all else, supposed to change America’s relationship with the world, and most pressingly with our trans-Atlantic allies. And to that end, the Obama administration has been earnest and diligent on big things (Gitmo) to signal a new approach.

But after 70 days of concerted but unreciprocated good will, and now a commitment-free Summit, what becomes the Administration’s driving purpose with Europe if tangible action is ephemeral regardless of who is president?

The larger truth for America is, in fact, the diminishing value proposition that European preeminence represents in our foreign policy, given declining European power and their lack of seriousness on consequential global issues.

Consider that economically, California, Texas and New York produce more collectively each year than Germany, France and the UK do individually.1 Americans spend more at Target each year than the French, Germans and British spend on national defense.2

Since the end of WWII, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, Europe has become increasingly myopic, mercantile, puerile and pacifist. It is not so much a partner as a scold, displaying an unseemly moral and intellectual superiority on a range of issues that becomes laughable given even a cursory review of European history.

The anomaly of European power is that it is based not on economic or political dynamism, but on membership in global institutions formed after WWII.  Those mid-20th century institutions – above all the UN – have remained static in structure, freezing European prerogatives in place while the world has radically changed with the rise of China, Japan, India and Brazil. Understandable efforts to modify global institutions to reflect the 21st century realities is a constant source of deep Euro-anxiety.

Thus Europe’s continuing prattle for recognition and a seat at the table is more a plea for continued relevance. But their ultimate interest is not in a constructive responsible role, adapting to 21st century power, but in promoting and defending the remaining vestiges to their own 20th century Great Power status.

This might be almost tolerable if there was a tangible and serious result in all the caterwauling. But with the potential exception of the UK, there is not.

European rhetoric has no partner in effective or concerted European action.

Consider that while Europe preaches about genocide in the Sudan, it was unable to deal with Serbian genocide in its own back yard in the mid-1990s without American power.

And after incessant Euro-clucking about missed diplomatic opportunities to resolve Iraq without war, the United States took a back seat to European efforts to reign in the Iran’s nuclear program through the ostensibly more sophisticated and civilized tools of engagement and negotiation.

Three years later, we sit at the precipice of the Islamic Republic with nuclear weapons.

Adding insult to injury, individual European countries do themselves no favors when they abdicate their responsibilities the moment international purpose conflicts with national sensibilities. International condemnation of Guantanamo Bay is easy and cost free.  Accepting the Gitmo inmates as part of the Obama plan to close the facility is another matter entirely. Ironically, in so doing, they mimic the unilateralism so reminiscent of the detested Bush administration.

There will always be a special cultural tie between the US and Europe. Our people, customs, culture, law and politics are rooted in the European evolution of the past 500 years, just as America has grown distinctly into a global melting pot.

But it was British Prime Minister Palmerston who said in the 19th century that Britain had no permanent allies, only permanent interests.  As the preeminent power today, the US could constructively use Palmerston’s advice.

Our emotional connection to Europe aside, America’s economic, political and security interests are increasingly aligned with the emerging powers of China, Japan, India and Brazil, among others; where the Europeans are actors but not central players.

In his address in Strasbourg, President Obama indirectly chided the Bush administration for allowing trans-Atlantic ties to “drift” in the aftermath of policy differences over Iraq.

But it was the Bush administration that augmented ties with Japan, cemented ties with India, structured greater partnership with Brazil and created a strategic dialogue with the Chinese. In doing so, Bush was looking to America’s future.

Obama’s remarks in contrast, propped up a stirring nostalgia for America’s past, where and when there was compelling common interest.

As he assesses where to invest political capital for the greatest value moving forward, President Obama might want to try out his routine in Mumbai. His audience will be more receptive.

1. Department of Commerce

2. National Retail Federation/Wikipedia Annual Military Spending


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