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July 14, 2008 |  Print  Your Opinion  

Jan  Techau

America Votes, but Europe Decides on the Future of Transatlantic Relations

Jan Techau: Europe’s approach to the US will be decisive for the future of transatlantic relations. Though Bush will leave, the US will not be in a position to radically change its foreign policy. It is time for Europeans to become more American and acknowledge that the era of justifiable disagreement with America is over.

It is just like when worried parents are wondering what kind of boyfriend their beloved daughter is going to be bringing home this time. It is true that they no longer have any say whatsoever in the choice, but nevertheless they have a very concrete idea of exactly what he should look like. And not only that, they are all too well aware of just how important the decision is for the atmosphere in the family home. Europeans have a similar feeling when they look at America, where now, in the aftermath of the primaries, the country is setting about the task of selecting a new president. And the people of the old world leave no room for doubt about whom they favour for the post: Obama. Whether he will actually turn out to be a "more manageable" president than the Republican candidate John McCain, is however extremely questionable.

One thing is sure: there will be a change of path in several policy areas particularly dear to Europe: climate change, Guantanamo, and Iraq. But even a President Obama could not and would not let the Europeans abdicate their responsibilities in other areas of contention which they all too often tend to ignore such as Iran, Afghanistan, and the Missile Defence Shield. Europeans will then find out that their time enjoying the comfortable side of a president such as Bush, where saying no was easy and even a question of honour, is over, and that Obama will be more difficult because he will be harder to deny.

With John McCain, things look a little different. His agenda displays a somewhat conspicuously high proportion of neo-conservative ideas and plans, and as such appears to be a direct successor to the mixture of idealistic mission and military interventionalism which has been so hard to swallow under Bush. The man from Arizona is perceived, as opposed to Bush, as competent and above all, as someone who knows Europe. McCain has systematically built up and fostered contacts with Europe and especially Germany since the 70s. He knows how Europeans tick. He knows what can be demanded of partners and what not. That is not any more comfortable but easier to calculate, no small advantage.

Whoever becomes America's new president, whether Obama or McCain, will have to bear the load of being the world's superpower with all the huge opportunities, responsibility, and awesome burden of decision making that go with that from day one. The era of ideological foreign policy may very well be over in times of tight resources. The burden of debt, trade deficit, crisis in the financial markets, the dollar exchange rate and recession force the giant onto a more pragmatic political course, but America will not be able to change its foreign policy as much as many Europeans would like to see. For this reason the question of who would be a more comfortable president for Europe is neither here nor there. The meaning, benevolence, and usefulness of transatlantic relations are in reality actually decided upon in Europe and not in America.

It is the Europeans who will have to give up their reluctance in all things concerning global governance. Without robust and sometimes hard contributions to international stability and conflict resolution the world will become an unsafer place, as America becomes (in relative terms) weaker. The time when Europeans lived with a global security which they themselves were not in a position to guarantee, are long gone. Whoever wants to keep shipping lanes open and despots away from the Bomb, whoever wants to cool down hot conflicts and remove terrorists from the theatre, can no longer point to America and say, "Sort that out." He must himself get involved. The real "change" must therefore take place here with us. America's former ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum is absolutely right: Europe would like America to become more European. The truth is however that Europe must become more American.

Jan Techau is head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). From 2001 to 2006 he worked in the German Ministry of Defence. Techau studied politics in Kiel and at Pennsylvania State University.

This article was first published in German in the July edition of "Diplomatisches Magazin."

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