Obama honeymoon ends in Europe
— Robin Shepherd is Director, International Affairs at the Henry Jackson Society. His areas of expertise are transatlantic relations, American foreign policy, Middle Eastern relations with the West, Russia, eastern Europe, NATO and the European Union. The views expressed are his own. —
It is to be hoped that President Obama has a developed sense of humour. The man heralded by many as the new Messiah of political renewal lands in London this week not to the chorus of approval he might have expected on his first official trip to Europe but to crowds roaring with anger and frustration at the global economic system which his country underpins.
It isn’t personal – yet. Few but the most unreasonable would hold the new American president responsible for woes that he inherited. Nonetheless, Obama campaigned on a platform of change. The implicit claim that his election was a grand, indeed poetic, instance of the time finding the man will be explicitly rejected – in Europe as well as at home – if he fails to deliver. We know he can give a pretty speech. But at the G-20 summit in London this week, that simply won’t be enough. For the first time at a major international gathering the blinding lights of international scrutiny will pour over Obama’s credentials on substance. His mettle is about to be tested.
It is true, of course, that there is tremendous accumulated goodwill towards the new American president in Europe. But time may yet show that much of that was merely the counterpoint to a hostility felt by so many against his predecessor. That, at least, is the risk. Obama can no longer play good cop to George Bush’s bad cop. He alone now has the stage, and when people are losing their jobs and homes they will want to see results. As leader of the Western world, the buck stops with him.
What applies to the economy will also apply to the great issues of international affairs. Obama will be given a chance over his new strategy on Afghanistan, though murmurings of discontent are not hard to detect in liberal-Left circles across the continent even now.
The idea that the war is unwinnable is gaining currency, especially in Britain. If, as the veteran political commentator Simon Jenkins put it in the Guardian this week, Afghanistan comes to be perceived as a “Vietnam for slow learners”, then it is Obama who will be handed the dunce’s cap if things do not improve. The president’s sensible and predictable modifications to earlier intimations about a complete and quick withdrawal from Iraq have also raised eyebrows. America’s critics did not die with Bush.
The NATO summit which follows the G-20 will provide a welcome opportunity to grandstand, especially with the re-incorporation of France into the alliance’s strategic command. The new deal with Paris marks an important symbolic turnaround with a country which more than any other symbolised transatlantic rifts under Bush. Obama will bask in it.
But even at NATO, he will have to tread carefully. As relations with the western part of Europe improve, there are rising concerns in some parts that the administration’s mooted new deal with Russia could herald a partial climb down from some long-standing American strategies, not least to expand the sphere of democracy in Europe’s east. Appeasement of Putin and Medvedev is not the kind of change the Poles and the Balts are looking for.
But that, of course, is the nature of the beast. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. Sometimes it really is a zero sum game, even for a leader with the charisma of Barack Obama.
The honeymoon is definitively over. Obama’s trip across the Atlantic marks the end of his transition from symbol of change to politician with a job to do. In the end, he will be judged like all the rest of them.