The Changing Political Calculus of Transatlantic Relations

Three posts about the upcoming summits (G-20 in London, NATO in Strasbourg) got me thinking about the politics of President Barack Obama’s transatlantic diplomacy: James Joyner wonders whether European Obamamania will survive the week, Heather Hurlburt points out how the diffusion of global power has diluted and complicated diplomacy, and Art Goldhammer scolds French President Nicolas Sarkozy for his threat to walk out of the G-20 summit.

A few scattershot thoughts: My sense is that for a number of not necessarily coherent reasons, European Obamamania has already faded significantly since the election, and even a bit since the well-received Munich conference. When the Czech prime minister calls out Obamafor heading down a “road to hell,” for instance, that’s a sign that the political winds have shifted (notwithstanding Topolanek’s lame-duck status and intended domestic audience). The reason has to do with divergent interests, which is of course where politics often gets bumpy.

Sarkozy and his threat of the “empty chair” is illustrative. The first two years of his term were predicated on addressing two structural weaknesses in France’s influence at the time he took office: its weakened role within Europe due to the French rejection of the 2005 EU referendum, and its weakened role in the transatlantic alliance due to its opposition to the Iraq War. The fact that his honeymoon period coincided with European paralysis and George W. Bush’s extended lame-duck period made his dynamic activity welcome and effective. Hence the Lisbon Treaty and France’s reintegration of NATO.

Obama changes all that, in counterintuitive ways I’ve already discussed before. In short, the political payoff for being Obama’s friend have been dramatically reduced by the high demand for his friendship. So by the logic of what I think of as the “Damascus Dilemma,” France actually wields more influence now as spoiler than as tenth wingman twice removed, especially in such a diluted format as the G-20 summit. Turkey’s threat to veto Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen’s selection as NATO secretary general — Rasmussen refused to condemn the “Mohammed cartoons” in 2005 — illustrates the same dynamic that is pushing late-Bush intermediaries into the role of early-Obama spoilers.

That gets me to Hearlburt’s remarks, which are on target. But I wonder if using the summit diplomacy as a debutante ball isn’t a political miscalculation by the Obama team, which seems genetically programmed to prefer caucuses to primaries. Obviously there’s been a lot of coordination beforehand, even between France and the U.S. And the U.S. president can’t spend his first four months in office flying around the world. But it would have been wiser to get some of the high-profile one-on-one meetings out of the way before walking into what amounts to a roomful of strangers. The rest of the leaders who will be in London all know each other and have experience working and summiting together. Which means Obama could very quickly turn into the odd man out, and his triumphant European tour a fiasco.