Obama and Europe: Beneath Affinity, a Growing Gulf

Obama and Europe: Beneath Affinity, a Growing Gulf

There was an overwhelming sense of relief in Europe following U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election in November. Although European approval of the Obama administration’s foreign policy has fallen since he took office in 2009, particularly over his increased use of drones in the war on terror and his perceived failure to put greater pressure on Israel toward a final status agreement with the Palestinians, Europeans overwhelmingly preferred him to his opponent, Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Indeed, according to one poll carried out in 12 European Union member states before the election, 75 percent of Europeans said they would vote for Obama if they could, compared to only 8 percent who said the same of Romney.

However, two long-term developments affecting U.S. foreign policy mean that Europe and America could drift apart during Obama’s second term in office: the U.S. budget deficit and the “pivot” -- since renamed a “rebalancing” -- toward Asia. The state of America’s finances means that, even more than in Obama’s first term, the U.S. will be what Michael Mandelbaum has called a “frugal superpower,” one that will in general seek wherever possible to "lead from behind" as it did in Libya in 2011. Meanwhile, although the Middle East still has the potential to divert Obama from his goal of shifting Washington’s strategic attention to the Pacific, the Libya intervention showed how disciplined Obama can be at limiting U.S. involvement overseas.

These long-term developments in U.S. foreign policy will create tough choices for Europeans, who are themselves becoming more inward-looking as they struggle to deal with the ongoing euro crisis and the new institutional questions it has raised. Above all, Europeans will likely find themselves becoming a smaller priority for Washington than ever before, in terms of personnel and resources. But if this causes Europeans to “grow up,” and in particular to take greater responsibility for their own neighborhood, it could actually be a blessing for both Europe and the U.S.

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