A Letter to a Key Obama Advisor on Europe

By Axel Krause, Contributing Editor
October 16, 2009

Earlier this week, France’s highly-respected daily Le Monde carried a front-page interview with Philip H. Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Euroasian Affairs. Creating a stir in influential circles on this side of the Atlantic. Its headline declared that, disappointingly, Washington calls on Europe to “share responsibilities” in world affairs, and display “solidarity” regarding the administration’s approach to Afghanistan and Iran.

Gordon, who spent a decade as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and has written extensively on U.S.-European relations, brushed off what Le Monde’s experienced Washington correspondent, Corine Lesnes, described as Europe’s growing “deception” with the administration’s foreign policy. He cited the “incredible” popularity of President Barack Obama, notably in Central Europe, and that cooperation with Europe had never been so good, amid debate over strains and differences he described as “healthy.”

The following letter attempts to respond to some of the views expressed in the interview and provide some thoughts, a suggestion and to explain why I believe my French colleague correctly reflected much of the current thinking on this side of the Atlantic.

Dear Mr. Assistant Secretary:

This letter attempts to provide some journalstic observations  regarding what an American official recently described as a “flashing yellow light” warning of frustrations and emerging trouble between the administration and Europe, and to explain why your urging Europe to be more engaged in Afghanistan, for example, is probably a non-starter, certainly regarding significantly enhanced military involvement by Germany and, to a lesser degree, Britain, France and the European Union as a whole.

Indeed, while Europe’s honeymoon with the president is by no means over, you might note our recent interview in this magazine with France’s former foreign minister, Hubert  Védrine, whose book “History Strikes Back” you translated, in which he makes two salient points. First, he observes “Obama is not that interested in Europe, having no special reason to be, and has far more urgent problems to deal with…some high-level French officials still refer to Obama as naïve. I believe this is a mistake.”

In other words, the president’s current attitude to Europe is widely perceived by a good number of experts and those involved in trans-Atlantic issues over here as bordering on the superficial, looking casual, indifferent, and/or preoccupied, compared to some of his predecessors going back to the post World War Two era.

Second, turning to the way the administration handled its evolving, controversial policy regarding the military buildup in Afghanistan, Védrine also noted that Obama announced his new policy prior to his recent participation in the last NATO summit – alone. “There was no declaration of a war council, a joint military command, nor debate in NATO, involving those countries present in Afghanistan. Thus, I believe the Europeans were right in refusing” to significantly increase their military involvement there.

Meantime, you undoubtedly know that the Netherlands, while a relatively minor player there in terms of numbers, has reportedly announced plans for withdrawing its military forces from Afghanistan, while in Germany, Britain and France, faced with increasing casualties, there is growing, hostile, grass-roots opposition to what is widely perceived as an “American war” with no clear direction, nor convincing arguments from Washington for Europe’s stake, nor a realistic timetable for peace and withdrawal.

Sadly, we are a long way from a period you will recall – the late 1980s as the Cold War was ending – when European and U.S. leaders enjoyed close, regular personal relationships, notably between former President George H.W. Bush and France’s Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. This is described as “parallelism” by my friend, Sorbonne Professor Frédéric Bozo in a solidly-researched article in the November issue of the authoritative journal of diplomatic historians, Diplomatic History.

Today, hardly a week goes by without another example surfacing of what I and others refer to, which, in no particular order, include the following :

+ President Obama’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Predictably, public congratulations poured in from around the world. Privately, some heads of state and government, journalists, academics, among others, felt he did not deserve the prize for accomplishment; most  argued some other candidates did and that the deciding committee in Oslo, comprising Norwegians and headed by a leftist political figure, had made a rare political statement of encouragement and accomplishment the U.S. leader did not deserve – yet. A spokesman for one popular European leader grumbled he had done as much for peace as Obama.

+ The recent, surprise successful bid for the directorship of the Paris-based UNESCO by a senior lady diplomat from Bulgaria, Irina Bokova. The front-running Egyptian culture minister, Farouk Hosny, was actively, openly supported by France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy, among others. But Washington lobbied very hard to block him for his anti-Israel statements and alleged incompetence, so finally, amid annoyed French and reluctant Third World backing, she won. It left simmering some hostility to Washington, particularly among Muslims, whom Obama has been openly courting that began with his June Cairo speech.

+ The falling dollar. And the wide perception that it will continue what one analyst described as a “long shamble downward,” is seen by many Europeans as not only a reflection of the outlook for a weak U.S. economy, but as part of deliberate policy by the administration to bolster U.S. exports at the expense of the Europeans, whose euro currency, has risen sharply and steadily in the past few months. Many Europeans simply do no buy the idea that it will help move the U.S. away from huge trade deficits. Commented a top former IMF official this week: “Their (the administration’s) idea is to keep the dollar low, and we’re caught.”

+ President Obama’s open support for Turkey’s EU membership. Some European leaders, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, but particularly Sarkozy who remains vehemently opposed, privately resent what they consider something of an intrusion on their political turf. The 27-nation European Union remains divided on the question, as membership negotiations continue, but there is a widespread perception that Washington is trying hard at every occasion to exert its influence in the region. Some cite as an example Washington’s active, involvement in last week’s signing of the historic agreement between Turkey and Armenia.

We are, of course, we are dealing here with perceptions, coupled with what some of us view as the president’s perfectly-understandable, private reactions to some European leaders. Sarkozy, as we have seen over here, clearly is not his cup of tea; not his style, substance, nor the flashy French leader’s constant positioning for media coverage, including in the president’s presence. Yet, he seems to genuinely like the lower-key Chancellor Merkel; less so Italy’s Sylvio Berlesconi , and, while on good terms with Britain’s Gordon Brown, he surely must be wondering what it will be like dealing with David Cameron, assuming the Conservatives return to power next spring.

Do these personal relationships matter? If so, they do presently add up to a bewildering, mixed picture, with a notable  absence of a strong, enthusiastic commitment by the White House to Europe and specifically, its main institutions, the European Council of Ministers, the Commission and European Parliament.

In conclusion, Mr. Assistant Secretary, what, specifically, do you want the Europeans to do regarding the sharing of responsibilities? I am sure you have thoughts and proposals, so why not press for a trans-Atlantic summit to discuss and debate – openly and soon  – the options and alternatives?  Europe’s strong, steady popular support for Obama as a world leader remains, and I, among others, encounter it constantly on the street, in conferences, on televison talk shows and the like. But as the Economist recently warned, it’s time to confront the flashing yellow light noted above before it turns red.

With best wishes,

Axel Krause
Paris, France






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