Obama’s New World Order

by Nick Witney Nick Witney, former Chief Executive of the European Defense Agency, is a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). 13.06.2009

As the world digests President Barack Obama's recent historic speech in Cairo, one conclusion is readily apparent: it will take more than a single speech to effect reconciliation between the United States and the Islamic world, after years of hostility and mistrust. But this was a significant start.

There is a second conclusion to be drawn, less evident but even more important: Obama's ambition is not confined to cutting the root of Islamic terrorism, or even to bringing peace to the Middle East. It extends to nothing less than a complete reshaping of the global order.

Obama's dramatic overture to the Islamic world was only the latest in a series of such openings by this remarkable US president. The economic crisis arguably forced the new American rapprochement with China (the "emerging" power that has now emerged as the big winner from the world's financial turmoil). But no such circumstance prompted the move to "re-set" relations with Russia, the journeys to mend fences with Latin America and Turkey, or efforts to reach out to Iran. These are all products of a deliberate policy.

The unilateral moment has passed. The US had its few short years as a hyper-power, and it did neither America nor the world much good. Now, before our eyes, Obama is repositioning the US at the centre of a web of global bilateral relationships - the "G-2" economic relationship with China, the nuclear relationship with Russia, and now the search for a relationship of mutual respect and cooperation with the Muslim world. As in a Venn diagram, Obama is placing the US at that central point where all the different ellipses overlap. First among equals, and the indispensable nation.

Where, one might wonder, does this leave Europe? Europeans have grown used to the idea that the transatlantic relationship is the foundation of the international order. Following the difficult years of the Bush presidency, Obama has duly sought to restore transatlantic harmony as well, visiting Europe in April and extending the hand of partnership there, too.

To be sure, Europe gave Obama very little back for his pains, whether in terms of help in Afghanistan or support in stimulating the global economy. But if Obama lost sleep over this tepid European response, he showed no signs of it. In the new Obama world order, transatlantic relations are not the foundation, but just one of the Venn diagram's ellipses - as significant or insignificant as Europeans choose to make it.

While Europeans chew on that, they should also reflect on what the Cairo speech could mean for their own position in the Middle East. Europeans have long cherished the belief that centuries of history and the facts of geography, not to mention more recent patterns of immigration, have given them some sort of special relationship with the Islamic world - an often strained and sometimes bloody relationship, but nonetheless one based on deep mutual familiarity. In European eyes, Americans lack such sophisticated understanding, and often have no interest in acquiring it, seeing the land around and beyond Israel as populated largely by greedy oil sheikhs and dangerous religious fanatics.

Like all caricatures, this European view has had some truth to it. And, though Europeans have lamented that fate has allocated the real power in the Middle East to their crass cousins, they have nonetheless done pretty well there, not least commercially, simply by not being American.

Now, after listening to Obama in Cairo, they will have to ask themselves whether this is not another aspect of how the world works, and of Europe's position in it, that is about to change.

It was a fine speech, and Europeans will duly applaud it; but listen for the growing undertone of anxiety that this bold young US president has just helped himself to some more of Europe's clothes.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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