For many Europeans, he had them at hello. But over the past few months, European leaders have become less enamored with Baraco Obama…
Can he win them back as he starts his trip next week?
Last summer in Europe: the people were at his feet. Now?
By Toby Harnden
The Telegraph (UK)
When he visited Europe last July, Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, stood before 200,000 in Berlin’s Tiergarten park to declare his “global citizenship” and call on the “people of the world” to “come together to save this planet”. It was heady stuff, and the rapturous reception was one befitting a new political messiah after eight wilderness years. Back in the United States, the young senator ended his stump speeches with a vow to “change the world”. Americans craved affection from abroad. Europeans were eager to fall in love.
But that was eight months ago, and the innocence of that summer has started to evaporate. Mr Obama has become the first black man to occupy the White House, but the world is in the grip of the worst economic depression since the Thirties, with no path back to prosperity in sight.
While the troop surge in Iraq that Mr Obama so vehemently opposed has succeeded beyond his imaginings, the “good war” he championed in Afghanistan is spiralling downwards and there are dark mutterings on the Left about it becoming his Vietnam.
For all the mutual goodwill, the transatlantic policy battle-lines are drawn. The Americans want additional economic stimulus measures to be taken across the globe. The Europeans are preoccupied with a supra-national financial regulation structure.
Mr Obama’s demands for more European boots on the ground in Afghanistan have already been rejected by the French and Germans.
As the new American commander-in-chief embarks on his first extended foreign trip in Air Force One, stopping in London for the G20 summit, Strasbourg for a gathering of Nato, and going on to Prague, Ankara and Istanbul, the sheen is already wearing off his shiny new presidency at home.
The leak-proof, supremely well-organised campaign and the post-election transition that was hailed as being one of the smoothest in history are over. They have given way to an at times stumbling administration that struggles to fill the cabinet, botches its message and has all but abandoned the bipartisanship candidate Mr Obama promised.
Far from changing the world, Mr Obama has barely looked over his shoulder at it. The person he has entrusted his foreign policy to is Hillary Clinton, a bitter campaign rival whose diplomatic credentials he once mocked. To appoint her Secretary of State was perhaps an ominous sign, a move designed to keep her from challenging him domestically.
During his first, chaotic weeks in power, Mr Obama’s focus has been almost entirely domestic. Key diplomatic posts remain empty. No ambassador is in place in London or Paris. Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, has grumbled that it has been almost impossible to organise next week’s G20 summit in Docklands because White House officials are missing in action. “There is nobody there,” he says. “You cannot believe how difficult it is.”
Obama was elected as the “unBush”, and his image of being everything his Texan predecessor wasn’t has given him stratospheric popularity ratings overseas that still endure. When he took office, a Financial Times/Harris poll found that 68 per cent of Americans believed he would have a “positive impact on the course of international events”. In France, this figure was 92 per cent, in Italy 90 per cent, Spain 85 per cent and Britain – where perhaps some saw echoes of the Tony Blair in 1997 who went on to dash so many hopes – 77 per cent.
During his more multilateral second term, George W. Bush went some way to rebuilding fractured transatlantic ties. But recognition of this did not penetrate much deeper than the level of his fellow world leaders and the political classes. Ordinary Europeans remained intensely sceptical.
The reverse was true with Mr Obama. In the corridors of the Foreign Office and Quai D’Orsay, however, there is already some disappointment. Nile Gardiner, the director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, is a touch hyperbolic when he hazards that foreign governments now see the Obama administration as “poorly managed, ineffective, inept and extremely bad at getting its message across”. But there are significant rumblings of concern.
Gordon Brown’s visit to Washington earlier this month was a public relations fiasco. Minutes before his meeting with Mr Obama in the Oval Office, British officials were still negotiating details with reluctant White House aides.
Although Mr Obama spoke of the “special relationship”, he appeared supremely uninterested in Mr Brown and what he had to say. He did not echo the Prime Minister’s call for a “global new deal” on the economy. The usual pomp and ceremony was absent at the White House.
While the fuss over his present to Mr Brown of 25 DVDs of American movies that were rumoured to be incompatible with British DVD players was overblown, the blunder in protocol swiftly came to be viewed as the kind of crass ignorance more commonly – though often unfairly – associated with his predecessor.
When Mrs Clinton met Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, in Geneva, she cheerily handed him a large red button in a yellow case, with the words “reset” and “peregruzka” written on it in Latin rather than Cyrillic script. It was a reference to the call from Joe Biden, the Vice-President, for a “resetting” of the US-Russian relationship.
“We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” Clinton asked.
“You got it wrong,” responded Lavrov, who informed her that “peregruzka” meant “overcharge”.
The schoolboy error had happened because the State Department’s cadre of Russian translators had been bypassed in favour of Mrs Clinton’s political team, who had turned to a Russian speaker who was not up to date with computer terminology.
Little of this will matter to ordinary Europeans, who view Mr Obama and his wife Michelle as a 21st-century version of the Kennedys. For Europeans, they symbolise everything America could be. “There’s a certain vicarious sentiment in Europe … Obama is so popular in part because they see the US as enjoying a multiculturalism they don’t have and won’t have for a long time,” says Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow and former senior Clinton administration official.
“Europeans still struggle with these issues and have done a much less impressive job in integrating minorities into the social mainstream, and that gives Obama enormous appeal just as a human being. I expect we shall see that outpouring when he is in Europe.”
This will be both an asset and a burden to Obama on his grand tour. For some in Europe, the reality of a President Obama may disappoint. “They may be naively surprised that Barack Obama is an American and not a European in drag,” says Mark Kirk, a Republican who is the only member of the House of Representatives to have served in Afghanistan.
Whatever their policy reservations, European leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are clamouring to bask in the reflected glory of the American president. Sarkozy worked assiduously to secure an extra stop in France for Mr Obama and was bitterly disappointed when the White House demurred, Strasbourg not withstanding.
If Mr Obama is skilful, he will use this to secure policy concessions. “He’s more popular than European presidents and prime ministers in their own countries,” says Kirk. “He’s saying the right things on diplomacy with Iran and climate change. There’s a danger for European leaders if they don’t give him what he’s asking for.”
And if he doesn’t, timing may be partly to blame. The G20 and Nato summits have come uncomfortably early for Mr Obama. In London, there will probably not be enough agreement on the global economy for much more than a vapid joint statement of common aims. It was only yesterday that Mr Obama announced the results of his own internal review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy – leaving little time to twist the arms of Nato allies.
The symbolism of Mr Obama addressing the Islamic world from Turkey, a Muslim country at the intersection of Europe and Asia, will be undeniably powerful. Whether his first major overseas trip will mark the moment Mr Obama matures from a personification of American possibility into a global leader who can take tough choices and secure concrete results remains an open question.