The election of Barack Obama promised change. For Europe it promised a welcome departure from the Bush doctrine with its emphasis on preemption and unilateralism and from a transatlantic relationship plagued by divisions over a score of issues ranging from the Iraq war to the ICC to the Kyoto Protocol.
And in some respects President Obama has also brought such change. A year and a half into his presidency, Obama has already pledged to close the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention center, sought to revitalize the stalled Middle East peace process, signed a landmark deal with Russia on reducing the two countries' nuclear weapons stocks, and made away with the unpopular ‘war on terror' paradigm.
Yet to the surprise of many Europeans, Obama has also retained some of the core elements of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Take Afghanistan for example where Obama, instead of pulling out, launched a massive surge against the Taliban and stepped up the practice of carrying out drone aircraft attacks against suspected terrorist elements in the Afghan-Pakistani hinterland.
The same combination of "soft" and "hard" security approaches is clearly present in the administration's new National Security Strategy, released earlier this summer. Calling on the one hand for the US to look beyond its military might to seek partnerships with rising powers and to enhance its work within international institutions, the strategy also speaks bluntly about the importance of maintaining the "military's conventional superiority" and reaffirms America's "right to act unilaterally."
From a European perspective, the new strategy seems to codify another distressing trend in the Obama administration's foreign policy: namely, the growing marginalization of the transatlantic relationship. While the Strategy does refer to the relationship with Europe as "the cornerstone for US engagement with the world, and a catalyst for international action," it is remarkably silent on Europe's role as a partner to the United States, only mentioning the EU twice, and then alongside other actors exerting power and influence in the world. This view reflects the Obama administration's reassessment of Europe's limited potential to serve as a key US strategic partner in the world.
Faced with this bleak American strategic reassessment, the EU, rather than lamenting about Washington's apparent downplaying of the transatlantic relationship, should seek to utilize the post-Lisbon momentum to step up its efforts of becoming a more effective foreign policy actor, thus also becoming a more attractive strategic partner to the United States. This would entail a combination of three measures in particular.
First, the EU should quickly move forward on implementation of the External Action Service (EEAS), allowing the Union's new diplomatic service to begin its important work of mustering the EU's diplomatic strength. So far, the debate around the EEAS has precluded any more long-term strategic thinking. With Lisbon in place, time is now also ripe to update the outdated European Security Strategy.
Secondly, Europe must stand shoulder to shoulder with the US on its most pressing foreign policy concerns: Afghanistan and Iran. Even after an eventual withdrawal of the ISAF-forces from Afghanistan, some international forces will necessarily have to remain in the country, training and supporting the Afghan National Security Forces. Europe must be willing to share this burden with the US while also taking the lead on other civilian goals such as long-term economic reconstruction. On Iran, Catherine Ashton should resume talks with Teheran in close coordination with US officials.
Finally, it is paramount that European leaders resist the obvious temptation of reducing defense spendings in times of financial turmoil. Instead the work of reinforcing the EU's crisis management capacity - an area in which Europe has a clear comparative advantage against the United States - must be carried on tirelessly.
Of course, raising Europe's say in world affairs will take hard work and is by no means automatic. But the efforts outlined above should at least contribute towards raising Europe's attractiveness in Washington, thus paving the way for enhanced transatlantic cooperation in the years to come. In an increasingly multipolar world, the transatlantic relationship is ever more significant for Europe; the real challenge, however, will lie in convincing the US that the same goes the other way around.
Erik holds an MA in Political Science from Uppsala University and is currently a Research Assistant with the Europe Research Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
- Kurt Volker: The "Obama Effect" Unveils Transatlantic Tensions
- Tobias P. Fella: Fight Not Flight for US-EU Strategic Dialogue
- Jeremy Shapiro & Nick Witney: Europe is Wasting its "Obama Moment"