26 April 2016

Time for America to lead again in Europe


President Obama bid farewell to Europe this week, nine months ahead of his departure from the Oval Office in January. After insulting the British people with his rude and reckless remarks about the UK being at the “back of the queue” for a free trade deal with America if they dare vote to leave the European Union on June 23, Mr. Obama proceeded to Germany where he met with Angela Merkel and leaders from across the EU.

Against the backdrop of the US presidential election contest, Barack Obama’s European trip was barely a blip on the radar of most US television screens, with the exception of his highly controversial, even bizarre, press conference alongside David Cameron at the Foreign Office. To all intents and purposes, President Obama is increasingly seen as a lame duck domestically, with the American public largely disinterested in what he has to say, especially on foreign policy matters.

Nevertheless, President Obama’s record on Europe deserves close scrutiny, not least as a case study in how not to lead the transatlantic alliance. While Obama was hero-worshipped in many parts of Europe when he entered the Oval Office back in 2009, there is a great deal of disillusionment today with his overall approach to European affairs. In fact it is hard to think of a US president in recent times who has paid less attention overall to the transatlantic alliance, and building ties with individual European leaders.

George W. Bush may not have been universally loved across the Atlantic, but he was respected as someone who was willing to invest a great deal of energy in cultivating relations with key leaders in Europe, from Tony Blair in Britain to Jose Maria Aznar in Spain. In Eastern and Central Europe, there was trust in US leadership, and a sense that America had the backs of those who were recently liberated from Soviet tyranny. In contrast, President Obama has been half-hearted in building ties across the Atlantic, and his relations with major European leaders have been largely superficial.

And in many European capitals that lie in the shadow of an increasingly aggressive Moscow, there is a growing sense that American leadership is on the wane, with Vladimir Putin exploiting both a perceived and real American weakness, with the closure of several bases in Europe, and a sharp reduction in US troop strength. The Obama presidency’s much-vaunted “Russian reset” has been a spectacular failure, one that has emboldened the Putin regime, and undermined European trust in Washington.

It was against this backdrop that President Obama bid farewell to Europe this week with a whimper not a bang. He delivered what is likely to be his last speech on European soil at the Hannover Messe Fairgrounds, in what the White House grandly billed as an “address to the People of Europe”. To say his speech was underwhelming would be an understatement. Obama’s utopian address was filled with the kind of flowery rhetoric he deploys every time he speaks to the UN General Assembly in New York, with a naïve vision that is eminently divorced from reality, and is rolled out in the absence of any real policy. It was yet another “we are the world” sermon from a US president who is woefully out of his depth on the international stage, and strikingly out of touch with the fact that the most powerful force in Europe today is the drive for self-determination in the face of suffocating supranationalism.

The next president of the United States must be prepared to lead again on the world stage, and actively invest in the transatlantic partnership and the NATO alliance. And that means action, and not just platitudes: from rebuilding US troop strength in Europe and permanently placing American forces in the Baltic States to deter Russian aggression, to cultivating deep-seated relationships with US allies across the Atlantic and promoting genuine free trade. President Obama has been big on lecturing European partners and currying favour with the European Union, but short on putting real effort into strengthening friendships with key leaders, especially beyond Western Europe. Europe is still the main source of US allies on the world stage, and NATO, combined with the Anglo-American Special Relationship, remains the engine of the free world at a time of mounting threats to the West, from resurgent Russian imperialism to Islamist terrorism.

The successor to President Obama must acknowledge as well that Europe is changing rapidly, with growing calls across the continent for greater control by national capitals, and a mounting rejection of the European Project. With his warnings in London that Britain must remain submerged in the European Union, Barack Obama demonstrated that his presidency is stuck in a 1950s mindset, when US policymakers first drove the process of ever-closer union to prevent another war in Europe, and help unify the West during the Cold War. It is now the second decade of the 21st Century, when Europe faces a new set of challenges, and US policy in Europe needs to move with the times, backing sovereignty over supranationalism, and economic freedom over EU central planning.

Nile Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.