Curiousity Compared with Indifference
Last week in Berlin, almost a thousand people showed up at the first public speech given by the new Russian president in Europe. Although President Medvedev did not say much that was surprising, the curiosity about the man from Moscow was palpable throughout the city.
Contrast that with the visit this week of President Bush to Germany. Quartered in the federal government's guest house an hour north of Berlin, the President did not venture into the city. In fact, Chancellor Merkel thought that the site was particularly suitable to have a more personal atmosphere for the last meeting with the President but also to avoid massive security lockdowns in downtown Berlin. Perhaps the latter concern might have been less demanding. The presence of the president did not generate much of a reaction as have past visits. The focus in Germany is now on the president's potential successor, with most Germans hoping it will be the candidate who most represents the opposite of Bush to the Germans: Barack Obama.
While Medvedev remains somewhat of an enigma as to what he is capable of doing in his new position, particularly with his predecessor's shadow still looming over him, there is a widespread hope that he will be able to shape relations between Russia and Berlin - as well as with Europe - in positive ways. That will also depend somewhat on what he decides to do at home in the wake of the autocratic legacies of Vladimir Putin. It will also depend on how Medvedev frames the choices he needs to make in relations with Europe. For now, people are tending to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Will a New President Equal a Better Dialogue?
Similarly, there is widespread hope that a new American president, preferably Obama, would lend his charm and charisma to a more synergistic dialogue with Germany and Europe in the wake of the general disappointment with President Bush, the war in Iraq, climate change conflicts, and other sources of irritation with the Bush administration. Yet the prospects for that may not be much greater with an Obama presidency than with a McCain White House. The reason: the parameters of any president are going to remain defined by the same challenges Bush is facing now. The question is: how will either candidate frame his priorities in dealing with them? The answer will shape a good deal of the transatlantic dialogue during the first months in office.
President Bush came on his final trip to Europe with an agenda, primarily focused on the danger of a nuclear Iran as well as on other concerns, be they in Africa, the Middle East or in North Korea. During his final meeting with his EU counterparts at the EU-U.S. summit in Slovenia, the frictions were generally papered over. There was no statement of support for the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in Europe. There remain some tense trade conflicts over the export of U.S. poultry to Europe. Climate change was recognized as a major problem but a consensus on how to deal with restrictions on carbon emissions remained allusive. This is in addition to differences over how to deal with Russia, China, the pace of NATO enlargement, and how to manage the future of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East conflicts in general. The overall results from both the summit and the president's trip were not expected to yield major breakthroughs on these issues on either side of the Atlantic. Yet, all of them will be waiting for the next president on his desk.
We have not heard a lot from either Obama OR McCain about how relations with Europe, let alone with individual countries like Germany, France or Great Britain, will figure into the policies of the next president. Iraq and increasingly the flagging economy dominate the debates. There have been some references about how we need to take care of our alliance partners by talking to them more effectively, but how that translates into specific policy positions is not yet clear. McCain's animosity toward Russia is well known but with Medvedev in a possible position to turn a page, maybe that equation has a chance to change. McCain has already signaled his concerns about nuclear proliferation to Moscow and that may offer an opportunity to find some common ground. Yet relations between Russia and the EU, and in particular with Germany, will be of central importance in shaping that dialogue with Moscow.
The Foreign Policy Challenges Are Not Going Away
European engagement in Afghanistan will be of importance in measuring transatlantic expectations and whether they remain in sync on the future of that volatile country. McCain has been more pointed in demanding that the Europeans do more. Obama has said less but the assumption is that he will be no less interested in seeing burden-sharing in the region. A President Obama in particular will need to demonstrate firmness in foreign policy, given the Achilles heel he has with regard to his perceived lack of experience in that arena. Afghanistan will appear a likely stage for him to exercise and expect steadfast commitment, even as he tries to extract the U.S. from Iraq. Here again, the question is whether there will be enough transatlantic overlap in framing the choices that the countries engaged in Afghanistan must find to maintain progress. This is tricky ground particularly in Germany where popular support for the Afghan mission is not strong.
With regard to Iran, the election campaign battle over whether or not to talk with Tehran about its nuclear ambitions will be eventually resolved by either President Obama or President McCain by continuing to say the same thing as President Bush said this week in Germany - all options remain on the table. Here the EU 3 - Great Britain, France and Germany - and the U.S. will be challenged to come up with benchmarks together to measure the probability of bringing Iran's nuclear program to a halt and what options remain if it cannot be done. There is no way that either Obama or McCain can avoid dealing with that issue right at the beginning of their presidency. The Iran challenge is linked to many others in the entire region, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the stability of Lebanon, and the efforts to continue the Arab-Israeli peace process as an immediate priority of a new administration in Washington. Here again, Europe can weigh in with its resources in the mode of both carrots and sticks if it can forge a common position.
The foreign and domestic policy agenda facing the next president will be daunting. The choices he will be able to make will be circumscribed by the combination of the political constellation he faces at home and abroad. They will also be shaped by the perception of what is in the best interest of the United States. A President Obama will be most likely looking at a more self-confident Democratic Congress with increased majorities on both sides of the Capitol. That may not necessarily translate into an easy ride even for a Democratic president. And a President McCain would certainly face pitched battles with such a Congress over everything from tax policies to the future of the American presence in Iraq. Either way, the formation of U.S. policies is going to be a noisy and perhaps uncertain development during the initial months of a new administration.
Working Together to Manage the Post-Cold War World
How relevant Germany in particular and Europe in general will be to the next president depends on their ability to articulate a message about both capacities and commitments to its agendas and to indicate where and how transatlantic coordination can help both sides deal with shared challenges.
There will no shortage of continuing arguments about many of the choices we face, just as there will be arguments within Europe about the same issues. There may be greater agreement on diagnosing dangers today than there is on prescriptions for healing them. There are many things in which, among other players, Europe, Russia, and the U.S. have a common stake on the global level, be it securing energy supplies, battling terrorism, or seeking ways in which a large portion of the world can be given an opportunity to engage in achieving an equitable share in global resources. That is not a new agenda for a new president in Washington or Moscow, or for the leaders of Europe. It is, however, an increasingly urgent one to discuss. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War we are still searching for a way to understand how to manage a more uncertain, increasingly decentralized distribution of power, resources, threats and opportunities.
Learning From Mistakes and Moving Forward
The lessons of the Bush years offer ample evidence how the dialogue across the Atlantic can lose sight of that shared agenda in the heat of disagreements over the means to deal with problems as well as over the problems themselves. During his trip through Europe this past week, President Bush admitted that his choice of words following 9/11 and in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq were poorly chosen, without admitting the same thing regarding some the policies he chose to follow. On the European side of that dialogue, there was frequently a tendency to engage in Bush bashing over both the president's rhetoric and his policies without coming up with a viable alternate plan to deal with strategic challenges. The push and pull of domestic political interests, along with clashes over style, arrogance, national ambitions, and the use of hard and soft power were all part of the first half of President George W. Bush's era as the United States attempted to come to grips with the attacks on 9/11.
The second half of that era featured more efforts at dialogue and cooperation, particularly between Germany under Chancellor Merkel's leadership and the U.S. Both the send and the receive buttons were working a bit better.
Will that continue with a President Obama or McCain? It is likely that the lessons of the recent past will serve to underscore the advantages of a healthy dialogue. But there is no guarantee that the transatlantic path will be a smooth ride. It will need a shared sense of purpose which will be defined at the global level but not by only one side of the Atlantic. New leaders can offer new opportunities, be it in Paris, London, Warsaw , Washington, or Moscow. Experienced leaders, as in Berlin, can help take advantage of those opportunities. But nothing can be taken for granted. No political leader can take office and assume that the agenda can be unilaterally dictated or dramatically altered without jeopardizing the sources of support needed to achieve goals, solve problems, or meet challenges successfully, be they domestic or international in scope. That may be a lasting message of the Bush era.
This essay appeared in the June 13, 2008, AICGS Advisor.