Europe's Obama Fatigue

Bush was better for Europe. No, seriously.

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."

Some of this can surely be attributed to Sarkozy's personal pique over upstart Obama stealing some of his thunder -- what the press has dubbed his "Obama complex" -- as the U.S. president did by swooping in to take credit for China's concessions at the G-20, for example. But there is legitimate frustration over the handling of issues as well. Most famously, of course, Sarkozy complained at the United Nations that "President Obama dreams of a world without weapons but right in front of us two countries [Iran and North Korea] are doing the exact opposite." There are also sharp differences over troop levels and strategic objectives in Afghanistan, Turkey's candidacy for the European Union, and the future of the French nuclear arsenal.

But if Obama's ratings are slowly falling on the continent, one place where they are already low -- lower than Bush's, certainly -- is in the countries that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dubbed "New Europe." While Bush made Eastern and Central Europe a top priority -- as evidenced by the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and the push for NATO expansion for Georgia and Ukraine -- his successor is clearly more concerned about relations with Russia, the very country whose influence New Europe is trying to avoid.

Obama's handling of the policy reversal on missile defense, in particular, has drawn sharp rebukes from the region, mostly on the execution rather than the policy itself. A Polish official was quoted by United Press International proclaiming that, "Waking Czech Prime Minister Fisher at midnight European time, and calling President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Tusk -- who refused to take the call -- 70 years to the day that Russia invaded Poland -- is politically inept and very offensive." Another official added, "this simply confirms how unimportant Europe is to the U.S., despite President Obama's words to the contrary."

To be sure, this criticism is somewhat overstated. But, as Bush learned to his chagrin, perception can become reality.

And indeed, while most European heads of state dutifully congratulated Obama after the surprise announcement of his Nobel win, the European press was as stunned as their American counterparts. The Independent's Ian Birrell assessed that Obama was being "once again lauded for his symbolism and potential rather than his actual deeds." Peter Beaumont of The Guardian equally snarked, "The reality is that the prize appears to have been awarded to Barack Obama for what he is not. For not being George W. Bush. Or rather being less like the last president."

It would be ironic, indeed, if the Europeans started longing for the good old days of the Bush administration. But that nostalgia is closer than you might think.



Broadband Marxism

Bridging the digital divide will require poor nations to reverse the privatization of their telecommunications networks.

Politicians and economists in developing countries searching for new technologies to create jobs and spur economic growth need look no further than their desks. The most vital technology for sparking development is a familiar and unglamorous one: the telephone. In many poor nations, telephone service is available only in large cities -- at a price few can afford -- and the more widely available mobile phone service remains expensive. As a result, at least 1.5 million villages in poor nations lack basic telephone service. Guatemala has just 65 telephones for every 1,000 people; Pakistan, 23; Nigeria, 5; and Burma, 4. By comparison, the United States has 667 telephones per 1,000 people. Manhattan alone boasts more telephone lines than all of Africa.

During the 1990s economic boom, many developing nations invested in laying fiber-optic lines, building satellite relay stations, and connecting to transoceanic cable -- the high-capacity "backbone" elements of telephone networks that transport data. So why does the 128-year-old telephone remain out of reach for more than 3 billion people? In part, because the cost of bridging the "last mile" from national network to local customer vastly exceeds potential returns in countries such as Colombia, where annual per capita spending on telecommunications is just $231 (in the United States, it’s $2,924).

Two new technologies offer a potentially quick solution: wireless-fidelity networks (Wi-Fi) and voice calling over the Internet (VoIP). Wi-Fi uses small, low-power antennas to carry voice and data communications between a backbone and users at schools, businesses, and households, all without laying a single wire, greatly reducing the cost of traversing the last mile. Laying land lines can cost up to $300 per foot. Wi-Fi hardware is fitted to existing structures for about $10,000 per base station -- a reasonable sum, considering that one Wi-Fi station can provide access to thousands of residences within two miles and that the antennas that attach to customers’ homes cost less than $100.

VoIP technology sends telephone calls over the Internet inexpensively by transforming people's voices into data "packets." Conventional phone service requires an open line at either end of a call -- an expensive service, not least because every conversation pause wastes bandwidth. By chopping words and pauses into tiny packages that are routed through the least congested part of the Internet, computers make VoIP calls much cheaper. In the United States today, a phone call using VoIP service costs less than half of a call made using traditional telephony; these savings can be duplicated in developing countries.

Together, Wi-Fi and VoIP can make telephone service affordable and accessible in poor countries. But for developing nations to benefit, their governments must rethink who owns the telecommunications networks. Put simply, it's a bad idea to have a monopoly, whether government or private, both control the network backbone and provide retail services to consumers. Such arrangements lead to higher prices and less competitive services.

Consider Telkom, the owner and operator of South Africa's telephone network, a formerly state-owned monopoly that was privatized between 1997 and 2003. Despite enjoying an advanced network backbone, Telkom does not offer basic telephone service to a majority of South Africans. Because it depends on revenues from phone calls, Telkom has little incentive to offer cheap VoIP service. South African law dictates that only Telkom and "under-serviced area licensees" (small firms in rural areas) are allowed to offer VoIP, yet the government has not approved a single under-serviced area licensee. So today, for a variety of regulatory reasons, only Telkom can provide VoIP. For competitive reasons, it does not.

Developing countries can break such strangleholds by renationalizing their network backbones, liberating them from the retail business of servicing consumers. Although state monopolies provided infamously poor service, running a network core is easier than providing retail services. State-owned network backbones can operate on a non-profit basis, providing access to private companies that compete to service local customers in villages and towns. It's not that the ordinary bias favoring private ownership and free markets is misguided. Nor are telecommunications networks too critical a public service to be left to free markets. Rather, networks in developing countries have never been subject to real competition. Ironically, a publicly owned backbone would level the playing field and increase competition among retail providers, leading to innovative services at lower prices.

One model for success can be found in Utah, where authorities in Salt Lake City and 17 surrounding towns have formed the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (utopia), building a high-speed network for 250,000 households and 35,000 businesses. The government owns the backbone, but does not sell Internet or VoIP service directly to customers. Instead, utopia is open to anyone wishing to sell broadband service.

Can the same model work in the developing world, where money and accountability are more elusive? Yes, for two reasons. First, Wi-Fi and VoIP flip the traditional telecommunications model on its head. The network backbone has only one objective (delivering data via a small set of universal procedures), leaving governments with a simpler job. Delivering local service is harder. Traditional telecommunications models are the opposite: The telephone is simple; the circuit-switched network is complex. And while a private monopolist has every incentive to charge an exorbitant price and increase profits at the expense of consumers, a public monopoly lacks that impulse. Nonetheless, to ensure that consumers benefit, an independent, nonprofit organization could jointly administer the backbone network with a government agency. To increase efficiency, the daily operations of the backbone could be leased to a private entity.

Such renationalization of network backbones would be expensive for developing countries, but the costs are not insurmountable. Governments could buy back network backbones using long-term debt funded by revenues flowing from the operating lease. A properly structured public debt issuance would assuage foreign investors' fears of a broader nationalization campaign.

In developing countries, telecommunications lead to more jobs, improved health care, and higher levels of education. The renationalization of telecommunications backbones is analogous to the state-funded building of roads. Roads and highways increase a nation's wealth by enabling commerce. In poor nations, the same can be true of the information superhighway, if politicians choose technology over ideology.