Obama gets Europe's ear, pleasing crowds without specifics

Posted in Europe , United States | 25-Jul-08 | Author: Steven Erlanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

Barack Obama after making a speech in front of the Victory Column in Berlin on Thursday.

PARIS: For Senator Barack Obama, who came to Europe once in the last four years, making a stop in London on his way to Russia, the response of many Europeans to his potential presidency has been gratifying ? emotional, responsive, replete with the sense of hope he seeks to engender about a more flexible, less ideological America.

European governments and politicians are not so sure.

On Thursday evening in a glittering Berlin, Obama delivered a tone poem to American and European ideals and shared history.

But he was vague on crucial issues of trade, defense and foreign policy that currently divide Washington from Europe and are likely to continue to do so even if he becomes president ? issues ranging from Russia, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to new refueling tankers and chlorinated chickens, the focus of an 11-year European ban on American poultry imports.

Europeans admire Obama's political skills, and welcome his apparent readiness to respect opposing points of view. For many here, that raises the prospect of a sharp break with the policies of the Bush administration, especially in its first term, when the United States chose to ignore the Geneva Conventions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, rejected the Kyoto accord on global warming and invaded Iraq, starting a war that some of America's European allies opposed.

"Will we acknowledge that there is no more powerful example than the one each of our nations projects to the world?" Obama asked in his speech, then added pointedly, "Will we reject torture and stand for the rule of law?" The huge crowd applauded and waved American flags.

"On the positive side, we can expect somebody who reasons the way we do in Europe," said Pierre Rousselin, the foreign editor of Le Figaro, a French newspaper, after the speech. "That said, on climate issues, the economy and world politics there are still questions. There will be a difference, but very quickly Obama will be faced with concrete questions, like Afghanistan."

Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations said, "The Obama who spoke tonight did not put all his cards on the table." Obama "tried to use all the symbolism of Berlin to indicate that as president he would reach out to Europe," Sandschneider said. "But between the lines he said very clearly that Europe needs to do more," especially on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Europeans are wary about Obama's call for more European money for defense and more soldiers for the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. They worry that he will not alter what they see as President George W. Bush's unbending bias in favor of Israel.

And, despite what appears to be his sensitivity to European concerns, they perceive Obama as largely uninterested in Europe, even though he is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee responsible for the region. As the newspaper Le Monde pointed out on Thursday, Mr. Obama has never asked to meet the European Union's ambassador in Washington.

But European leaders are particularly concerned about Obama's positions on trade, taken during the bruising Democratic campaign against Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, which seem to many to veer toward protectionism.

Europe's trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, last month urged both Obama and his Republican rival, Senator John McCain, to reject "the false comforts of populism" and abandon "the protectionist and antitrade rhetoric" that dominated the primaries.

Mandelson noted that Obama had pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and had opposed a new trade deal with Colombia. "A crisis of American confidence in globalization," Mandelson said, "could knock it off course."

Obama in his address spoke of the need for Europeans and Americans to recognize common challenges in an easily traveled world of radical Islam, nuclear proliferation, carbon emissions, violence, poverty and genocide.

But he offered more tepid support for free trade, even as negotiators in Geneva, including Mandelson, try to break an impasse that has dogged global trade talks for seven years. He said he wanted to "build on the wealth that open markets have created" but only if trade agreements were "free and fair for all," a phrase that suggests fidelity to the trade-wary stance of one wing of the Democratic Party.

Europeans are upset about a recent decision by the Pentagon to order a new round of bidding for a $35 billion contract for aerial refueling tankers. A European-led consortium won the lucrative contract, beating Boeing, earlier this year. But Boeing and its congressional supporters managed to have the bid reviewed and ultimately overturned.

The Europeans are unhappy with a five-year, $289 billion farm bill that maintains sizable subsidies for American farmers, even as the Europeans vow to review their own farm subsidies as a spur to trade talks. The United States complains that the European ban on American poultry costs American farmers about $200 million a year. The Europeans do not like the chlorine bath Americans use to disinfect their chickens, an argument that is less about safety than about taste.

Obama offered greater support for Europe's great experiment in shared sovereignty, the European Union, which now includes 27 nations. "In this century, we need a strong European Union that deepens the security and prosperity of this continent, while extending a hand abroad," he said, a nod to the large amounts of foreign assistance the Europeans provide.

He referred repeatedly to "European" people and values, drawing a contrast with the Bush administration, which has often sought to recruit individual European countries, like Britain and Poland, to support its policies, while doing less to cultivate ties to the broader European Union. Washington views the European Union as being dominated by France and Germany and less eager to follow America's foreign policy.

But Obama also called for a more muscular Europe to act with the United States in the common defense, a politically delicate matter here that is likely to prove an irritant no matter who wins the presidency.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has sent more troops to Afghanistan, but he has faced fierce political criticism for doing so. The Germans continue to be unwilling to send their troops from the safer northern provinces of Afghanistan to the south, where the Taliban is resurgent.

Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, said, "I don't think Europe is a major stake for" Obama, adding, "It's the support that Europeans can bring to his politics that matters."

Obama indulged in "some pro-German demagogy on nuclear weapons to get applause," Védrine said. But he said Obama's call for more European engagement in Afghanistan would not go over so well.

Even on Iran, where so far Washington and the main European countries have cooperated in their effort to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon, Obama refuses to rule out a military option ? a position that, as Le Monde said, "is judged unproductive by most Europeans."

Still, his willingness for some form of prepared negotiation with Iran is much closer to European views than that of Bush.