Europe and Obama: The Divorce?

James Joyner suggests the end is nigh for the Obama honeymoon in Europe, and that Europeans might soon be thinking back with nostalgia on the good ole days of Dubya. While I largely agree with the former argument, and foresaw some bumps on the road even before President Barack Obama took office, there are a few nuances I’d make in his characterization of the latter.

Specifically, if George W. Bush learned to listen to Europe, and in particular NATO, it was largely after he’d been chastened by the failure of the Iraq war and the 2006 mid-term elections. Up until his final NATO summit, Bush continued to talk loudly about thelargely unpopular measures of NATO expansion and missile defense. He listened in the sense that he allowed the alliance — led by France and Germany — to turn him back, but it was out of weakness, not out of strength. There was no movement at all when it came to climate change, which is a major driver of public opinion here.

As for Obama’s handling of Europe, I’d agree with the characterization of his aloofness, especially with regard to the current Afghanistan strategic review. But while my sympathies would normally be with Europe on this sort of thing, I do think that Obama invited the NATO allies last April to assume greater ownership of the Afghanistan war. Given their refusal to do so, I don’t blame him for the freeze-out now. That said, Obama’s brush-off of the U.S.-EU summit is inexcusable and reflects a myopic view of the EU’s potential, especially with the advent of the Lisbon Treaty.

Another thing I’d add is that even if the kind of nostalgia Joyner is talking about — only half-seriously, I suspect — does begin to take hold, it will probably be limited to the European leadership. That reflects the fact that U.S. and European interests (and in Afghanistan, capabilities) diverge in significant ways. And even where they overlap, there is considerable cultural friction in how to deal with them. That’s nothing new, though, and even Bill Clinton, who continues to be revered here, was never confused with being an advocate for anything other than American interests.

But when it comes to public opinion, my hunch is that Obama will maintain his popular appeal in ways that will complicate the European political leadership’s ability to stake out their turf, in what promises to be a confusing period for transatlantic relations.