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Obama & Europe: Is the Honeymoon Over?

Obama & Europe: Is the Honeymoon Over?

By David Paul Kuhn - March 30, 2009

The love affair between Obama and Europe is about to face its first test.

As President Obama steps onto the world stage this week, he must ease the tension between the candidate Europe fell in love with and the president they have yet to substantively embrace.

Obama must now convince his audience that the policies he ran on, and is implementing, are inseparable from the face that Europeans found so fashionable. He is no less compelled to prove to Americans that the warm reception he received as a candidate carries real diplomatic chits as president.

More from RealClearPolitics: 10 Most Memorable Moments in Obama's Administration to Date

The test for American allies, and perhaps even adversaries, is whether they can show that a turn from George W. Bush's perceived unilateralism to Obama's sought after multilateralism will serve not only their interests but U.S. interests as well. After all, if all politics is local then all international politics is national. Obama must demonstrate to Americans that using your words can, at times, carry one further than one's might.

It's this combination of tests that frames Obama's first extended trip abroad. The president leaves tomorrow for the G-20 summit in London, aiming to close the conference Thursday with a global response to a global financial crisis. On Friday, Obama attends NATO's 60th anniversary summit meeting in Strasbourg, France and in Baden-Baden and Kehl, Germany, where the commander-in-chief hopes to convince skeptical allies that they too have a stake in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Obama then goes on to Prague, Ankara and finally Istanbul, where he hopes to convey that the election of a man named Barack and Hussein exemplifies that America is a nation of open minds.

By trip's end Obama though may have little to show for the diplomatic blitz. There is a heightened temptation abroad to scold America. Many U.S. allies and adversaries believe that the war in Iraq has undercut American national security clout and that the global recession has done the same to America's economic authority.

To much of the world, the United States is looking like the Wizard of Oz. The flash is mesmerizing but many nations question the country behind the curtain. They see an unregulated wild west with an unsustainable financial machine that depends on nations like China for endless credit.

As Columbia Professor of International Affairs Michael W. Doyle put it: "The curtain is about to be raised ... and he will walk out as the key actor."

The U.S. narrative, as Europe has long requested, though has changed. The executive order closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year confirmed a willingness to heed world opinion. The staggered withdrawal of U.S. soldiers in Iraq should also help mend the tear in transatlantic relations.

Even Americans are now second-guessing "cowboy capitalism." There is a sense that hedge funds will be regulated like banks, though not to the extent that nations like France desire. The United States has also put its money where its mouth is, investing trillions in revitalizing its own economy at the moment it asks the same of the world powers.

Obama's election was the most powerful gesture of all that the United States has, in the president's words, "turned the page." European magazines covered themselves with photos of Obama during the campaign in a fashion rivaling those of David Beckham. It was just last summer that 200,000 Germans crowded Berlin's Tiergarten park to hear the candidate lecture on how to "save this planet" with an ethos of "global citizenship."

It is Europe however acting most parochial of late. On the eve of the G-20, French President Nicolas Sarkozy argues that "radical reform" of capitalism should be the top issue. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that she "will not let anyone tell" her "we must spend more money." It was a most blunt, perhaps Bushian, challenge to Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's effort to orchestrate trillions of dollars in global fiscal stimulus.

The Spanish finance minister, Pedro Solbes, said he too opposes new large-scale spending. The Czech Republic's prime minister characterized the United States' push for a global stimulus as "the road to hell." This rhetoric is hardly the statesmanship Europe has demanded of us.

The responses are also indicative of European national politics. There is less urgency to exit the recession in continental Europe. The focus instead is on long-range solutions like an international financial regulatory structure. Continental Europe's automatic stabilizers pump more money into the economy and its wider safety nets insulate its citizens from economic anxiety. Losing your job, across Europe, does not mean you lose your health insurance.

But as British Member of Parliament Denis MacShane put it, if the world's economies do not recover "who does Mrs. Merkel think is going to buy Mercedes and BMWs?"

In this sense, many continental European leaders seem unwilling to ask their constituents what they have long asked of American presidents: convince their voters that what is in the world's interest is in their national interests as well.

If continental Europe does not ante up, London will look like a G-2 meeting of China and the United States. European nations could relegate themselves to the sidelines even as they hope to prove themselves still vital world players.

It seems Europeans have not generally reconciled with the candidate they fell for. A Financial Times/Harris Poll conducted when Obama was inaugurated found that Europeans wanted the Guantanamo detention center closed but were unwilling to take in some of the captives. Europeans were also opposed to escalating the war in Afghanistan but it's precisely that escalation that is necessary to stabilize the region.

Obama will look to the NATO summit to, at least, earn a communiqué of unified support for America's renewed efforts in Afghanistan. Obama's more immediate burden is the financial crisis however. And at the G-20 Obama faces an uphill battle of perception. The American push for a global economic stimulus is viewed as the assailant asking the victim for help.

"The U.S. is blamed, with some justification, with having inflicted an absolutely disastrous recession on much of the world," said Sebastian Mallaby, the director of the Center for Geoeconomic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

But the blame game can quickly turn London 2009 into London 1933. More than 50 nations sent delegates to meet at the London Monetary and Economic Conference of 1933 to revive the global economy during the Great Depression. The meeting fell apart when Franklin Roosevelt broke from his British and French allies. That failure assured that the depression turned global.

According to Columbia University's Doyle, "The failure to coordinate," sundered the 1933 conference. "That's why this London summit is so important," he added, "it is the opportunity to do it right."

Obama's desire to deal immediately with the recession, like Roosevelt in 1933, is again up against a continental European desire to return to more orthodox financial standards. But this is the candidate Europe courted. Last summer, when Obama toured the continent, no one anticipated this economic crisis. That's the way marriages go however. It's the hard times that prove their mettle.

More from RealClearPolitics: 10 Most Memorable Moments in Obama's Administration to Date

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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