Will 2009 and the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency mark the beginning of a new era in trans-Atlantic relations, or will the old divisions linger, nurtured by the depth and gravity of the economic crisis? Will the crisis lead to nationalistic and selfish attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic, stymieing the long-awaited rapprochement, if not a full reconciliation?
It is, of course, too early to tell. Even if the left wing of the European left — like the most liberal of the US Democrats — voices concerns that Obama has selected a far too centrist Cabinet, a classical form of anti-Americanism is bound to recede in Europe. It is very unlikely that Europeans will take to the streets to denounce the “essence” of the US — what America is as much as what America does — as they have done during George W. Bush’s presidency and even during the Clinton years.
The image of the US in Europe has changed profoundly since Nov. 4, and the style of Obama’s diplomacy once he becomes president will probably confirm that change.
Yet in trans-Atlantic relations, as globally, it is unwise to expect too much from a single man, whatever his exceptional qualities. Fundamental problems remain and new ones are likely to emerge.
First, whatever the brutal style of the new Russia under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, the Soviet Union no longer exists and no longer constitutes the common threat that was the “glue” of the Alliance until 1989. Unless something goes terribly wrong, a new Cold War is not about to start.
Second, there is a continuing structural imbalance between the way Europe looks at the US, that is, with passion and concern, and the way the US looks at Europe, that is, with mild interest giving way to growing indifference. During the Cold War, Europe was the US’ first line of defense. Now, Asia, the Middle East and possibly Africa will constitute greater priorities for Washington.
Third, even if the US under Obama praises and even practices multilateralism, Americans are far from ready to accept the reality of a multipolar world. They may write about it conceptually, but its meaning — a world in which their country is only primus inter pares — has not really penetrated the national psyche.
The internationalism of the US remains grounded in the idea of US “exceptionalism” — a unique role and sense of mission. It is an approach with which Europeans have great difficulty coming to terms. Even with Obama as president, they may be quick to denounce the combination of arrogance and hypocrisy that they see as linked to the US’ view of her “special and unique mission.”
Fourth, if US diplomacy changes in style and content, will Europe face the challenge when America calls for help? One early test is likely to be Afghanistan, when a smiling but firm Obama turns to Europe and says: “You have backed me in immense numbers. I thank you for it. But now I do not need your symbolic votes; I need your concrete support. I need the further engagement of your troops in Afghanistan.”
I suspect that European leaders will not respond eagerly. Most are convinced that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and they know that public opinion, especially in time of great economic hardship, has no appetite for such operations. Europeans have a traditional tendency to denounce US military adventurism while relying on the US as their protector.