Oct 13th 2008

Can the next US president heal the transatlantic rift?

by Tomas Valasek

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy & defence at the Centre for European Reform. He has written extensively on transatlantic relations, common European foreign and security policy and on defence industrial issues. He is also a senior advisor to the Brussels office of the World Security Institute.

There are two schools of thought on what the election of a new US president will mean for transatlantic relations. The optimists argue that relations will improve significantly. They assume that much of the anger Europe feels towards the US is aimed at George W Bush rather than the country as a whole, and that once he leaves, US-European ties will revert to their normal, friendly terms. The pessimists disagree: they say that US and European outlooks on security are fundamentally different, that the next US president, whoever he is, will pursue a foreign policy similar to that of George W Bush, and that the relations may well worsen post-US elections as the Europeans, disappointed that president Obama or McCain does not turn out to be a multilateralist European liberal, turn their backs on the United States with a vengeance.

So when the German Marshall Fund released its annual Transatlantic trends survey last week, both the optimists and pessimists poured through the numbers in search of evidence for their respective hypotheses. On balance, the results tend to slightly favour the optimists, but much depends on who the Americans elect on November 4th.

The German Marshall Fund asked the Europeans directly whether they think that relations with the US would improve after the elections. Fourty-seven per cent of Europeans said 'yes' assuming Obama is the president. The reverse held true for McCain: only 11 per cent thought transatlantic relations would improve with him in the White House. But this reflects Europe's strong preference for Obama rather than a dislike of McCain. Only 13 per cent of Europeans think that relations would worsen under McCain while a significant plurality - 49 per cent - expect them to remain the same. This suggests that Europe is adopting a 'wait-and-see' attitude on the Republican candidate.

Another useful way of gauging the impact of elections is to compare perceptions of the United States in Europe with attitudes towards George W Bush personally. Thirty-six per cent of Europeans support US leadership role in the world but only 19 per cent approve of George W Bush's conduct in the office. This suggests that the 'Bush' factor reduces the Europeans' support for the US by 17 percentage points - a percentage that Obama would certainly (and McCain possibly) pick up just by getting elected.

At this point the pessimists would point out that it does not matter what the Europeans think now. A pessimist would say that the Europeans do not understand how much continuity there is in US foreign policy. And that once Europe finds out that Obama or McCain's foreign policy is more similar to George W Bush's foreign policy than Europe's - which it will be - even the most hardened Euro-optimists will feel disappointed.

That is a valid point. Obama's victory in particular would be bound to generate expectations that no president could fulfil. So after an initial spike in European support for the US, there would come an inevitable decline. (With McCain, the Transatlantic Trends suggest, there would be little excitement in Europe initially, and hence less room for disappointment later if he turns out to be similar to the current president).

But none of this rules out the possibility of a long-term improvement in relations. It all depends on how the new president conducts himself in office. Past US presidents have managed to combine the US foreign policy tradition of assertive leadership with the Europeans' preference for multilateral solutions and diplomacy. And so, presumably, could Obama and McCain.

Here are a few supporting numbers: in 2002, 64 per cent of Europeans approved of US leadership. (That number, as pointed out earlier, has dropped to 36 per cent today.) The major change since 2002, which accounts for the chill in transatlantic relations, was the war in Iraq. But six years on, Iraq has become a lot more stable and less salient as a political issue in Europe. It could largely disappear from transatlantic debates if Obama wins the presidency: he opposed the war all along, and has promised to withdraw US forces speedily if elected.

European support for US leadership stood at 64 per cent six years ago because previous US presidents have used US military power more delicately than George W Bush, and listened to the European allies a lot more attentively than the current president. That is precisely what Obama promises to do. (McCain says he will listen to Europe more but on some issues like Russia he sounds more aggressive than George W Bush.)

US foreign policy, contrary to the pessimists' assumptions, is not bound to remain jingoistic - in fact, it has become a lot less belligerent in the last three-four years, during which the US opened talks with North Korea and endorsed Europe's nuclear diplomacy with Iran (for which president Bush, wrongly but understandably, has received no credit in Europe).

To win the Europeans' hearts, the new president will have to show appreciation for the EU's new role. As McCain or Obama will find out, Europe has changed much since George W Bush came to power. It no longer instinctively turns to the US when a crisis breaks out on or near the continent. The EU now takes care of most security problems on its own (except for large-scale crises, which still require NATO involvement). This new EU is not anti-American: 67 per cent of Europeans think that Europe should seek to work with the US rather than independently, say the Transatlantic Trends. So if the next US president seeks to work with his allies in Europe, he is likely to be received positively. Support for US's leadership role would eventually inch up. And optimists among the Europeans would feel vindicated.

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