U.S. President Barack Obama is so beloved in Europe that he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize (which he later won) just 12 days after taking office for his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples." A Pew survey this summer found that 93 percent of Germans, 91 percent of French people, and 86 percent of Brits believed Obama "will do the right thing in world affairs," a stunning turnaround from their views on the last administration. Yet, this perception belies the reality that Obama has done much less for Europe than his predecessor.
Despite George W. Bush's defiant "you're with us or you're against us" public stance, he actively solicited advice and input from his NATO partners. Obama, by contrast, is saying all the right things in public about transatlantic relations and NATO but adopting a high-handed policy and paying little attention to Europe. And Europe is taking a hint.
The signs are telling, the most important but least reported of which are Obama's choice of staffing. To be sure, there are some very prominent Atlanticists in the administration. Gen. James Jones, the previous chairman of the Atlantic Council and former supreme allied commander, is national security advisor. And current Atlantic Council Chairman Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has just been appointed as co-chair of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. But many important working-level posts in both the State Department and the National Security Council (NSC) are unfilled. Most notably, the EU portfolio at the State Department has been treated as a political hot potato, currently being handled as an additional duty by the Balkans director.
With such a dreadfully weak human infrastructure at home, it's no wonder next week's U.S.-EU summit is expected to be a non-event. The preparations have thus far mostly focused on protocol rather than policy. The Europeans are particularly irritated that the luncheon will be hosted by Vice President Joseph Biden rather than the U.S. president himself. Under the previous administration, Bush regularly presided.
On Afghanistan, which all agree is the alliance's most critical mission, the Europeans are also feeling a bit lorded over. As Jackson Diehl put it, the region's leaders are "frustrated that they must watch and wait -- and wait and wait -- for the [U.S.] president to make up his mind." Mark Mardell, BBC's North America editor, reported "a growing sense of frustration" at the NATO defense ministers meeting in Slovakia last week over being held in limbo.
Even in Britain, where the public loves Obama, the government has been obsessed, after repeated slights -- the infamous CD set gifted to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a press conference canceled due to light snow (or was it fatigue?), being denied a private meeting with Obama at the Pittsburgh summit, etc. -- with the notion that the two countries' "special relationship" is over. To be sure, some of this is overblown -- and hardly new -- but Obama has been less solicitous of his country's most natural ally than any U.S. president in memory.
America's relationship with France bounced back markedly after Nicolas Sarkozy was elected to replace Jacques Chirac. But there have been more than a few bumps since Obama took office. "Obama's policies are not the Atlanticism that Sarkozy was expecting," Macleans quotes Hall Gardner, a professor of international politics at the American University of Paris, as saying. "There've been several elements of disagreement between the two."