New U.S. president won't fulfill all Europe's desires

Posted in Europe | 11-Jan-08 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

Presidential candidates U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) (L), U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (C) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ)

BERLIN: From now until November, the European media will be transfixed by what is turning into a particularly exciting U.S presidential election campaign. It is not just because Europeans are still fascinated by American power, despite the widespread opposition to the Iraq war, which deeply divided Europe. They are united in wanting a fresh start in the White House.

It is an understandable view. Europe would love to see a Democrat elected president, believing that this would lead to a fundamental shift in the trans-Atlantic relationship. But the Europeans may be clutching at straws.

Karsten Voigt, Germany's special U.S. envoy, who has spent years monitoring the shifts in the trans-Atlantic relationship, especially the rift after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, says the Europeans harbor illusions about America. "Their expectations are so high about the next administration," he said. "The Germans in particular want to identify with a president as they did with Kennedy or Clinton. They want to believe that the next administration will be fundamentally different and better than the present one."

Senator Barack Obama has already been hailed as "the new Kennedy" by some in the German media. The European public is also enthusiastic about Obama's main rival, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, and even Senator John McCain, a member of George W. Bush's Republican Party. The fact that none of the U.S. presidential hopefuls have yet explained any details of their foreign policy goals does not seem to dampen the desire for change.

Until the invasion of Iraq, the United States represented a force for good to many Europeans. The Iraq war, the Guantánamo Bay detention center and the torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison shattered that view. Now, says Voigt, the Europeans want to believe the status quo ante can be restored. It will be close to impossible.

Certainly the attacks of Sept. 11 and the invasion of Iraq transformed the United States and the trans-Atlantic relationship. But change was already taking place after the end of the Cold War nearly 20 years ago. On Bill Clinton's watch, the United States swung back and forth between multilateralism and isolationism, while at the same time asking the Europeans to carry more of the burden in defense and peacekeeping.

Clinton did not venture into the Middle East to bring his stature to bear on negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians until his second term. His administration refused to submit the UN Kyoto Protocol on climate change for ratification and did not support the new International Criminal Court. But Clinton's charm and persuasion helped to shield America from criticism.

The Bush administration continued these policies, using a much blunter tone. It unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it signed with the former Soviet Union in 1972, which forbade the testing and deployment of a ballistic missile defense system. It signed a pact with India, supporting its nuclear weapons program, which further undermined the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Yet when President Vladimir Putin of Russia suspended participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe last month, there was an outcry by the United States and the Europeans. They cast Putin as a potential spoiler of the post-Cold War order, ignoring what Washington had done earlier. So far, neither Republican nor Democrat candidates have suggested returning to the ABM treaty.

Then there is NATO, which Clinton had reservations about. In 1999, he cajoled the military alliance into bombing Serb targets in order to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. But NATO's European allies were hard-pressed to provide even basic logistics.

The alliance was further downgraded after Sept. 11. When the former secretary general of NATO, George Robertson, pushed through a declaration under Article Five of the NATO treaty, which commits member countries to defend an ally that has been attacked, Bush turned down the offer. The Pentagon did not want any interference by a multilateral alliance. That decision dented NATO's pride. Small wonder that NATO European allies, led by France and Germany, stopped the alliance from supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. defense secretary, sidelined NATO further, confirming the administration's ambiguity toward it as a collective alliance. Only when the Taliban gained ground in Afghanistan in 2005 did Washington plead with NATO to send more troops there, which the members grudgingly agreed to do.

Whoever wins in November, NATO can expect tougher demands because U.S. politicians believe that since Europe is stable, prosperous and united it can carry more of the burden. "The U.S. will expect a more helpful Europe that will take more responsibility and run risks to solve common problems," argues Kori Schake, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who served on the National Security Council during Bush's first term. "But neither aspiration will be met."

This is because Europe still does not know what it wants when it comes to foreign policy or the trans-Atlantic relationship. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, wants France to re-join NATO's military command, from which it withdrew in 1966, but only on condition that Europe becomes a powerful military force independent of the United States. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain remains aloof from Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who says she is committed to NATO but is hesitant to send troops to serious trouble spots, is caught in an election cycle until the end of 2009. Europe still cannot agree over the use of force as a means to stop conflict, as the crisis in Darfur, Sudan, shows. There is still no one voice speaking for Europe.

The Europeans can expect more problems with the next U.S. administration over trade and climate change. The Democrats also appear more protectionist than Bush.

"Expect big problems in the relationship," said Denis McShane, a British legislator and former minister for Europe. "The Europeans should realize that until they start speaking with one voice, they will have little influence."