Obama's Road Show Goes to Europe
President Obama and his team are preparing for their European tour - as are his German counterparts - and the agenda is not going to be an easy one. In early April, the meetings of the G20 in London and the NATO sixtieth anniversary meetings in Strasbourg and Kehl are going to be marked by some difficult bridge-building over several challenging and even divisive issues. As he does at home, Obama is going to try to cash his popularity checks in Europe to drive his agenda. He has to hope that some of them don't bounce.
Debating the Need for a Global Stimulus
The first challenge will be trying to reach a consensus with the nations attending the London meeting on defining the right balance between the need for a global stimulus package to stem the recession and the need for reforming the structures and policies which failed to prevent it in the first place.
A complicating factor is that the Europeans do not have a consensus among themselves. Germany in particular is taking a tough stance as far as pumping more money into the system before evidence of the impact of the first round of stimulus packages can be evaluated. It has also voiced criticism of those countries which have failed to be as disciplined with their economies and now look to Europe's richest economy to help them out.
That said, Germany knows full well that maintaining order in Europe is going to require helping countries with high levels of exposure to the recession to avoid a widening collapse such as experienced in Iceland. The question is how to steer that course.
Bickering Over Approaches
In arguing against U.S. pressure to inject vastly more stimulus money into the economy, Europeans are claiming that one needs to take into account how much money goes into the welfare systems already, which takes care of people hit by recession with a more generous unemployment plan than that available in the U.S. That attitude is enhanced by the widespread critical view that the U.S. has neither such a system in place nor the regulatory tools to police its own behavior which, many argue, led to the world's current travails.
The American response to that is a sarcastic one which alleges that Germany is designing plans for a new firehouse while the fires next door are still blazing. With a German economy so dependent on exports for its health, Obama's team is saying that Germany has a special responsibility to make sure that there is sufficient demand in the world by strengthening the stimulus supply.
Germans respond with an equally sarcastic attack, accusing the U.S. of wanting to avoid making adequate reforms now and also wanting to avoid them later when the downturn is over. As evidence, they point at the efforts Chancellor Merkel made during Germany's EU presidency in 2007 when she pushed hard for regulatory controls of hedge funds only to be rebuffed by both the U.S. and Britain.
In the end, both regulatory reform and continued stimulus programs will be necessary as the global recession deepens. But there are going to be clashes over the extent and the sequence of both, driven by national interests, elections, and even personality clashes between worried leaders.
Some Germans are particularly concerned about the sluggish process of getting the Obama team in place. This is particularly the case at the Treasury Department, where Secretary Geithner appears to be doing everything from making policy to answering the phones without a sufficient support team around him - all the while facing increasing pressure in Congress to lay out his policies.
The Tone of the Transatlantic Exchange
Another concern is the style of the transatlantic exchange which, despite the initial rhetoric out of DC over the last few weeks, for some recalls unpleasant memories of the debate over the Iraq war. It was then that the Bush team called for a rush to fight what they saw was the core of global danger in Saddam's nuclear ambitions - and did not like hearing those who said things like former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer: "I am sorry - I am not convinced." Today, a similar clash over means and ends might be brewing particularly between Washington and Berlin. But this time, there is no doubt about a very clear and present threat; the clash is about what to do about it. And that phrase, "I am sorry - I am not convinced," can be heard on both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to offering solutions.
So this crisis is capable of generating as many centrifugal forces on both Europe and transatlantic relations as well as centripetal ones. The question is: which forces will be stronger?
Sixty Years of Alliance Facing Trouble in Afghanistan
After London comes the NATO summit in Strasbourg with a light footprint on the other side of the Rhine to symbolize the German-French shared hosting of the event. Here we also find competing forces pushing and pulling on a sixty year old alliance. In the center of the debate is Afghanistan, which is being set up as a test case for NATO. Obama has certainly made it his own benchmark by sending more troops there in his first weeks in office.
The challenge is going to be in the formation of a consensus on how to recognize and pool all the resources available to stabilize the country before its August elections, and then keep it sustained afterwards. The burden sharing within the alliance, however, remains a contentious issue.
A recent separate meeting among those countries who have troops engaged in the fighting in the volatile southern Afghan region caused other nations there to be irritated. That small group wanted to coordinate their policies for actions in which others don't partake, not a healthy sign for any alliance.
But the problem of recalibrating both the means and the goals in Afghanistan remains largely unsolved because of the way in which the original delineation of responsibilities was made and in turn has partly undermined a coherent policy ever since. We seem to have problems achieving solidarity and synergy at a time when we need both. The fact that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is not bothering to attend the summit suggests that he may feel achieving a consensus may not be really doable.
Afghanistan is illustrative of the challenges facing the alliance as it comes to grips with problems which were not foreseen in the environment in which it was born six decades ago. Be it terrorism, cyber attacks, or climate change, there is a clear need to redefine what NATO is about in the twenty-first century. Obama will be seeking to outline that in Strasbourg.
Translating Rock Star Status to Concrete Progress
As a candidate for the White House, Obama traveled through Europe last summer like a rock star with the corresponding response in the streets of Berlin. As president, Obama will try to keep that support while now having to tell the Europeans that "yes we can" - and should - do more to deal with the economic and strategic challenges ahead. But this time, it is not about admonitions. It is about concrete choices and decisions. Be it steering a successful path through this immediate and threatening recession or getting our policies coordinated in an unraveling crisis like Afghanistan, Iran, or in several other brush fires around the globe, we need to be looking for as much solidarity as we can generate. Obama is going to need to articulate that more fully and more concretely than heretofore.
Without that message, an alternate and familiar question might surface: anyone for coalitions of the willing?