Obama and Europe, Act II

by Derek O'Leary on March 29, 2013

If the EU had cast a token Electoral College vote in November’s U.S. presidential election, the choice would have surprised no one. Opinion polling in EU member states prior to the election reflected unequivocal support for President Obama. Poland—the most “Republican” EU country polled—expressed just sixteen percent support for Romney. 

Europe may remain a sea of Democratic blue, but the tone on the subcontinent has changed between Obama Acts I and II. European media and citizens followed Obama’s reelection with far less fervor and optimism than four years ago. We might recall the 200,000 young, American flag–waving Germans who ecstatically greeted Senator Obama in Berlin in summer 2008. If the line between pro-Obama and anti-Bush was faint, one still sensed in Germany and across Europe the collective breath-holding, exhilaration, and sigh of relief on Election Day. Beyond leaving behind a decade that had atrophied U.S.-European relations, the election of President Obama promised a return to ambitiously fashioning a world consonant with EU values. Obama assured Berlin that “America has no better partner than Europe.”

Juxtaposed with this elation and promise, the last four years have proved disappointing. The pivot to Asia suggests apathy toward Europe and its myriad problems (though Secretary of State Clinton sought to allay this concern in November). Even if the administration’s tone has changed since Bush, substantive issues of discord remain: Guantanamo Bay, the increase in drone attacks, and tepid efforts to mitigate climate change (or outright resistance, as when the U.S. rejected the EU Emissions Trading Scheme for aviation), to name a few. Today, economic crisis directs gazes inward, mayhem in the Middle East and Africa and China’s “rise” pull attention southward and eastward, and demographic changes entail fewer personal transatlantic bonds. Both immediate and profound trends naturally divert attention from the North Atlantic, and the EU was effectively absent from the U.S. presidential campaigns. Though one may see this as a welcomed silence, reflecting engrained ties and abstention from “Euro-bashing,” a sense of estrangement has crept into a partnership vital to bolstering a secure liberal-democratic world order.

Nonetheless, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU and Obama’s reelection provide occasion to consider the future of the transatlantic partnership. The prize celebrates an ongoing success, which “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” It is also a success of U.S.-European cooperation and the world the post-war victors envisioned. However, scant and cynical media coverage in the U.S. and EU revealed that the vitality of the great post-war story of European renaissance and U.S.-European cooperation fades. This narrative no longer resonates as it once did, and history alone cannot direct the future of U.S.-EU relations. A new age must redefine the relationship, for only in each other can the U.S. and EU find a partner with the capacity and willingness to pursue often shared global goals. Though Obama’s first term espoused no such vision, his second may.

As U.S. and EU economies strive to accelerate growth, a comprehensive transatlantic free-trade zone between the world’s largest economies and most active bilateral trade partners will prove an important step. U.S.-EU trade in goods and services now totals around $700 billion per year—far outstripping their respective trade with China—and foreign direct investment totals $4 trillion. Beyond eliminating remaining tariffs, a comprehensive agreement (coined TAFTA) would harmonize regulations and standards on a range of products, improve public procurement, further protect intellectual property rights, and enhance investment. Such a deal would boost growth, serve as a paragon for such agreements, and motivate further cooperation within and beyond U.S. and EU borders. Though incredibly intricate and not the most stirring of foreign policy legacies, it faces relatively few political hurdles. As is often the case in U.S.-EU affairs, the latter is more eager to engage, but Obama finally joined the chorus of European leaders in his explicit endorsement during February’s State of the Union Address.

As the dynamism of Pacific Asia rebalances global affairs away from the Atlantic, the EU and U.S. seek to emerge from economic malaise, and the U.S. accustoms itself to reduced global clout, there is perhaps no better time to reinvigorate a collaborative transatlantic partnership. This will not—and need not—attain the systematic and existential dimensions of the Cold War partnership but may serve as a springboard to pooling resources and cooperating on international challenges such as environmental protection, cyber-security, democracy and human rights, and enhancing free and fair global markets. Moreover, it may cultivate a more coordinated sense of purpose—not against any nation or bloc—but in pursuit of shared values.

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