Argument

The End of the Affair

Four years after Barack Obama's landmark Berlin speech, the transatlantic alliance is fading fast. What went wrong?

John McCain may have called Barack Obama the biggest celebrity in the world, but the place that has held the U.S. president closest to its collective heart has always been Europe. When he took to the stage in Berlin on July 24, 2008, a crowd of 200,000 Germans abandoned their usual reserve to flood screaming and cheering into the Tiergarten.

They came to see an aspiring American president give flesh to all of Europe's fantasies about American leadership: multiethnic and multilateral; pragmatic and peacefully minded; social democratic in his goals and so eloquent in their expression. Obama promised to purge the sins of George W. Bush and give new impetus to the alliance for a new century. "America has no better partner than Europe" he said.

The paradox is that while Obama successfully healed the transatlantic rift, he may also be the American president who presided over the end of the West as a political community.

Four years on from Berlin, Obama would still trade his approval ratings in any European country with those in his native United States. In June, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey showed that nine out of 10 voters in France (92 percent) and Germany (89 percent) would like to see him reelected, as would large majorities in Britain (73 percent), Spain (71 percent), Italy (69 percent) and the Czech Republic (67 percent). And at a tactical level, Europeans and Americans are cooperating more closely -- on a range of issues from Iran to Syria -- than they have for many years.  Even when they disagree, they do so with civility and a surprising absence of rancor.

But Obama's stellar personal ratings in Europe hide the fact that the Western alliance has never loomed smaller in the imagination of policymakers on either side of the Atlantic.

Seen from Washington, there is not a single problem in the world to be looked at primarily through a transatlantic prism. Although the administration looks first to Europeans as partners in any of its global endeavors -- from dealing with Iran's nuclear program to stopping genocide in Syria -- it no longer sees the European theater as its core problem or seeks a partnership of equals with Europeans. It was not until the eurozone looked like it might collapse -- threatening to bring down the global economy and with it Obama's chances of reelection -- that the president became truly interested in Europe.

Conversely, Europeans have never cared less about what the United States thinks. Germany, traditionally among the most Atlanticist of European countries, has led the pack. Many German foreign-policy makers think it was simply a tactical error for Berlin to line up with Moscow and Beijing against Washington on Libya. But there is nothing accidental about the way Berlin has systematically refused even to engage with American concerns over German policy on the euro. During the Bush years, Europeans who were unable to influence the strategy of the White House would give a running commentary on American actions in lieu of a substantive policy. They had no influence in Washington, so they complained. But now, the tables are turned, with Obama passing continual judgment on German policy while Chancellor Angela Merkel stoically refuses to heed his advice. Europeans who for many years were infantilized by the transatlantic alliance, either using sycophancy and self-delusion about a "special relationship" to advance their goals or, in the case of Jacques Chirac's France, pursuing the even more futile goal of balancing American power, have finally come to realize that they can no longer outsource their security or their prosperity to Uncle Sam.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the ties that held the alliance together are weakening. On the American side, Obama's biography links him to the Pacific and Africa but not to the old continent. His personal story echoes the demographic changes in the United States that have reduced the influence of Americans of European origin. Meanwhile, on the European side, the depth of the euro crisis has crowded out almost all foreign policy from the agenda of Europe's top decision-makers. The end of the Cold War means that Europeans no longer need American protection, and the U.S. financial crisis has led to a fall in American demand for European products (although U.S. exports to Europe are at an all-time high).

What's more, Obama's lack of warmth has precluded him from establishing the sorts of human relationships with European leaders that animate alliances. When asked to name his closest allies, Obama mentions non-European leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Lee Myung-bak of South Korea. And his transactional nature has led to a neglect of countries that he feels will not contribute more to the relationship -- within a year of being elected, Obama had managed to alienate the leaders of most of Europe's big states, from Gordon Brown to Nicolas Sarkozy to Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Americans hardly remember, but Europe's collective nose was put out of joint by Obama's refusal to make the trip to Europe for the 2010 EU-U.S. summit. More recently, Obama has reached out to allies to counteract the impression that the only way to get a friendly reception in Washington is to be a problem nation -- but far too late to erase the sense that Europe matters little to this American president.

Underlying these superficial issues is a more fundamental divergence in the way Europe and the United States are coping with their respective declines. As the EU's role shrinks in the world, Europeans have sought to help build a multilateral, rule-based world. That is why it is they, rather than the Chinese or the Americans, that have pushed for the creation of institutionalized global responses to climate change, genocide, or various trade disputes. To the extent that today's world has not collapsed into the deadlocked chaos of a "G-zero," it is often due to European efforts to create a functioning institutional order.

To Washington's eternal frustration, however, Europeans have not put their energies into becoming a full partner on global issues. For all the existential angst of the euro crisis, Europe is not as weak as people think it is. It still has the world's largest market and represents 17 percent of world trade, compared with 12 percent for the United States. Even in military terms, the EU is the world's No. 2 military power, with 21 percent of the world's military spending, versus 5 percent for China, 3 percent for Russia, 2 percent for India, and 1.5 percent for Brazil, according to Harvard scholar Joseph Nye. But, ironically for a people who have embraced multilateralism more than any other on Earth, Europeans have not pooled their impressive economic, political, and military resources. And with the eurozone's need to resolve the euro crisis, the EU may split into two or more tiers -- making concerted action even more difficult. As a result, European power is too diffuse to be much of a help or a hindrance on many issues.

On the other hand, Obama's United States -- although equally committed to liberal values -- thinks that the best way to safeguard American interests and values is to craft a multipartner world. On the one hand, Obama continues to believe that he can transform rising powers by integrating them into existing institutions (despite much evidence to the contrary). On the other, he thinks that Europe's overrepresentation in existing institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is a threat to the consolidation of that order. This is leading a declining America to increasingly turn against Europe on issues ranging from climate change to currencies. The most striking example came at the 2009 G-20 in Pittsburgh, when Obama worked together with the emerging powers to pressure Europeans to give up their voting power at the IMF. As Walter Russell Mead, the U.S. international relations scholar, has written, "[I]ncreasingly it will be in the American interest to help Asian powers rebalance the world power structure in ways that redistribute power from the former great powers of Europe to the rising great powers of Asia today."

But the long-term consequence of the cooling of this unique alliance could be the hollowing out of the world order that the Atlantic powers have made. The big unwritten story of the last few decades is the way that a European-inspired liberal economic and political order has been crafted in the shell of the American security order. It is an order that limits the powers of states and markets and puts the protection of individuals at its core. If the United States was the sheriff of this order, the EU was its constitutional court. And now it is being challenged by the emerging powers.

Countries like Brazil, China, and India are all relatively new states forged by movements of national liberation whose experience of globalization has been bound up with their new sense of nationhood. While globalization is destroying sovereignty for the West, these former colonies are enjoying it on a scale never experienced before. As a result, they are not about to invite their former colonial masters to interfere in their internal affairs. Just look at the dynamics of the United Nations Security Council on issues from Sudan to Syria. Even in the General Assembly, the balance of power is shifting: 10 years ago, China won 43 percent of the votes on human rights in the United Nations, far behind Europe's 78 percent. But in 2010-11, the EU won less than 50 percent to China's nearly 60 percent, according to research by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Rather than being transformed by global institutions, China's sophisticated multilateral diplomacy is changing the global order itself.

As relative power flows Eastward, it is perhaps inevitable that the Western alliance that kept liberty's flame alight during the Cold War and then sought to construct a liberal order in its aftermath is fading fast. It was perhaps inevitable that both Europeans and Americans should fail to live up to each other's expectations of their respective roles in a post-Cold War world. After all, America is still too powerful to happily commit to a multilateral world order (as evidenced by Congress's reluctance to ratify treaties). And Europe is too physically safe to be willing to match U.S. defense spending or pool its resources. What is surprising is that the passing of this alliance has not been mourned by many on either side. The legacy of Barack Obama is that the transatlantic relationship is at its most harmonious and yet least relevant in 50 years. Ironically, it may take the election of someone who is less naturally popular on the European stage for both sides to wake up and realize just what is at stake.

GUIDO BERGMANN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

The Prince and the Revolution

Saudi Arabia is bringing back its most talented operator to manage the Arab Spring. But can Bandar stem the rot in Riyadh?

On July 19, on the eve of the Saudi weekend and the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi government orchestrated its equivalent of Washington's Friday afternoon news dump: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of the late crown prince and defense minister, Sultan, was appointed the new intelligence chief.

The kingdom may want minimal coverage and analysis of Bandar's appointment, but it is bound to be disappointed. Bandar used to be one of Saudi Arabia's flashiest diplomats, a longtime ambassador to the United States renowned for manipulating people and policy in the kingdom's favor, and sometimes also in favor of the U.S. government. At the very least, his appointment is a reflection of King Abdullah's concerns about developments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, and the limited talent pool in the House of Saud to meet the challenges. Frankly, it suggests panic in Riyadh.

Where does one start? Bandar certainly used to be a firm pair of hands, but recently that grasp has been shakier. Although Bandar endeared himself to successive U.S. administrations for being able to get things done -- as well as the sumptuous parties he hosted at his official residence in Virginia overlooking the Potomac -- the prevailing story about him recently has been about his mental state. William Sampson, a (friendly) biographer, noted that Bandar's "first period of full-blown depression" came in the mid-1990s. Another biographer, David Ottaway, described Bandar as a "more than occasional drinker," and most conversations about him seemed to revolve around, only partly mischievously, whether he had finished detoxification or not.

In October 2010, the Saudi Press Agency announced that Bandar had returned to the kingdom "from abroad," to be met at the airport by a bevy of princes. This development prompted me to write a Foreign Policy article making the case that "Bandar is back."

To my slight embarrassment, Bandar then disappeared from sight. But I wasn't wholly surprised about last week's announcement because Bandar has recently reemerged. In June, when his uncle Crown Prince Nayef died, the Saudi Press Agency published a photo of Bandar, saying he offered his condolences. A week ago, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Jeddah, Bandar was also listed as attending his audience with King Abdullah.

Although the kingdom's main obsession is Iran, its immediate pre-occupation is Syria. On that issue, Bandar may indeed be the man for the moment. Over the years, he has acquired a reputation for discreet diplomacy and intrigue in both Syria and Lebanon. According to a source close to the ruling family, King Abdullah regards Bandar, who bad-mouthed the then crown prince during his tenure as ambassador to the United States, with caution. At one point, Abdullah went so far as to take Bandar to the side and tell him: "I know you do not represent me in Washington."

But Abdullah still recognizes Bandar's talents. Although Abdullah is often depicted as a Syriaphile, the monarch changed his attitude, especially after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad castigated his fellow Arab leaders as "half-men" for their failure to support Hezbollah.

Another more recent example of Saudi willingness to play in Syrian politics was the welcome that Bashar's uncle, Rifaat, received in Riyadh when coming to pay his respects last month after Nayef's death. Rifaat has lived in Paris since 1984, having tried and failed to stage a coup after President Hafez al-Assad, his brother and Bashar's father, fell ill. Rifaat is related to King Abdullah by marriage -- one of Rifaat's wives was a sister of one of Abdullah's wives, the mother of deputy foreign minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah. The closeness between Rifaat and Abdullah is more than just kinship: They worked together in the early 1980s when Rifaat was leading the Defense Companies, Syria's praetorian guard, and Abdullah was commander of the Saudi Arabian national guard.

However the kingdom may be adjusting its Syria policy, there is no denying that the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the Saudi CIA, is badly in need of a shakeup. Its recent record is, to say the least, mixed: Shortly before the 9/11 attacks, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom's chief interlocutor with the then Taliban regime in Afghanistan, "was relieved of the post at his [own] request." In Ghost Wars, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the CIA and Osama bin Laden, Steve Coll wrote: "Turki's vast personal riches . . . bothered some of his rivals in the royal family. They felt the Saudi intelligence department had become a financial black hole. . . . Turki's rivals clamored for accountability at the [General Intelligence Department]."

Both Muqrin and Nawaf, the men who served as Saudi intelligence chiefs between Turki and Bandar, lacked flair. Muqrin, who has now been shunted into an undefined advisory role, trained as a fighter pilot, like Bandar. But his primary credential for the job was that he was loyal to King Abdullah. His other qualification was that, like the king, he was not a Sudairi -- the largest group of seven full brothers who have dominated Saudi royal politics for decades and still do, despite the passing of three of them. Nawaf, who took over from Turki, was even more of an Abdullah yes-man. The fiction that he was leading Saudi foreign intelligence was unsustainable after he suffered a stroke during the 2002 Beirut Arab summit. He is still alive, but confined to a wheelchair.

Even if Bandar has regained some of his previous form, the troubles of the Middle East, from a Saudi perspective, are surely more than can be handled by one man. In Syria, Riyadh wants Bashar out but does not want the contagion to spread to Jordan. To Riyadh's fury, it also finds itself competing for influence in Syria with tiny Qatar, which appears to be just as generous with money and weapons but much far more nimble in responding to events on the ground. Meanwhile, Iran looms over the horizon, gaining in nuclear potential while also, from the kingdom's perspective, fanning the flames of Shiite Muslim discontent in Bahrain and even at home, in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Recent clashes between Saudi Shiites and security forces following the arrest of firebrand Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr (literally: Tiger, the Tiger), resulted in the deaths of several protesters and the injury of dozens more.

Bandar's appointment suggests another weakness in Riyadh: King Abdullah, it appears, cannot identify or perhaps trust any other talent within the House of Saud for such a role. Bandar was born on the wrong side of the blanket -- his mother was a Sudanese concubine -- so has no claim as a future king. But what of the senior princes, who should be showing a flair for leadership at this critical juncture? Crown Prince Salman, the defense minister, and Prince Ahmed, the new interior minister, do not appear to inspire confidence.

The next generation, of which Bandar is a member, includes deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan and national guard commander Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, as well as Eastern Province governor Prince Muhammed bin Fahd and assistant interior minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. With Saudi Arabia's most senior princes dying off, it's time for this generation to step into a leadership role if the kingdom hopes to avoid a messy succession crisis in the near future -- or at least that is probably what these men, spring chickens in Saudi royal terms but already in their fifties and sixties, think.

But for some reason, King Abdullah has chosen Bandar for a role that, without too much hyperbole, might be described as saving the kingdom. It's an interesting choice.

PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images