Despite widespread public enthusiasm in Europe for the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama, long-term worrying trends remain that confront the trans-Atlantic relationship, said James Goldgeier, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“There is no question the European public is extremely excited” about new relations with the United States under Obama, he told the Feb. 6 symposium.
This is evident in public opinion polls, which under the previous administration of President George W. Bush showed people in many European countries overwhelmingly pessimistic about relations with the U.S. and its role in the world, he said. Now 70 percent to 80 percent of pollees believe their relations with the U.S. — and America’s ties with the rest of the world — will improve, he added.
Obama has taken positions different from Bush on issues of concern to Europeans, including climate change and the policy on detainees in the struggle against terrorism, he said.
“But while some of these new decisions will make it easier for the Obama administration to reach out to Europe, there are still a number of trends in U.S.-European relations that make the long-term prospects rather challenging,” he noted.
Goldgeier said that since the end of the Cold War, Europe has become “less and less important” to U.S. foreign policy, and that the U.S. policy toward Europe has become less about Europe but more about what America and Europe can do together to deal with other parts of the world.
Furthermore, he said, Europe has “grown more and more focused inwardly on itself” — on strengthening and enlarging the European Union, creating and maintaining the single currency, and trying to build new governing structures that adapt the union to its new reality.
The U.S. needs a strong Europe to address global challenges ranging from Mideast issues to nuclear nonproliferation, he said. But, for example, in Afghanistan, where the Obama administration has announced a policy of increasing U.S. troops in its war on terrorism, “our European allies place far too many restrictions on the role their troops can play and that makes the role of NATO as an alliance less relevant” to the future conduct of that war,” Goldgeier said.
The U.S. also faces a problem vis-a-vis Europe in its attempt to reform international institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the Group of Seven to function more effectively in the current global climate, he said.
“Europe’s place within those institutions is overweighted compared to the power that Europe has in the world today,” he said. “As the U.S. thinks about restructuring international institutions, it means giving more weight to countries such as China and India . . . but that means the Europeans are going to have to take a lesser role,” he added.
Some European leaders tried to play leading roles in the global response to the financial crisis that hit last year, but “on the whole Europe has had a very difficult time responding to the financial crisis,” Goldgeier said.
Goldgeier also said that many key European countries “continue to have politically weak leaders,” which raises questions from a U.S. perspective on the viability of trans-Atlantic cooperation.
He said he expects German politics to remain “rather fractured” after elections in September and that political uncertainties will likely remain in Britain as well. “So I think that despite a new tone in U.S.-European relations, the U.S. will remain frustrated with Europe’s inability to play the kind of role in the world that it would like to see,” he added.