Argument

The Transatlantic Test

Europe is facing an existential crisis, and it's time the United States recognized it. 

Ten months into President Barack Obama's first year in office, reports emerged that Greek budgetary figures simply weren't adding up. Six months later, an emergency European summit was held to approve the first $147 billion bailout of Greece. The Greek crisis nearly brought the global economy to a standstill -- not bad for an economy that represents just 2 percent of Europe's GDP.

Fast forward to November 2012. Twenty-one European summits have been held; three eurozone countries have bailout packages (Ireland, Portugal, and Greece, which is negotiating its third package); two more countries (Cyprus and Spain) are on the verge of receiving bailouts; and 17 European governments have changed or collapsed since the beginning of crisis. Eurozone unemployment is at an historic high of 11.6 percent (in Spain, the figure is 25.8 percent) and the economic growth of eurozone economies is projected to contract by 0.5 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Washington, we have a crisis -- a potential decade-long geoeconomic disaster that will extend well into Obama's second term or Romney's first.

Washington has not fully come to terms with the fact that its closest allies and partners are facing the most significant existential crisis since the Second World War. Can the United States exert influence over Europe's response? While we have the luxury of critiquing three years of the Obama administration's approach toward the European debt crisis, we can only guess what a Romney administration might do.

From the earliest days of the crisis, the Obama administration diagnosed Europe's problem as purely economic -- not an all-hands-on-deck, hair-on-fire 3 a.m. phone call possessing the global earthshaking qualities of the Lehman Brothers collapse in September 2008, but a worrisome economic problem nonetheless. The response was to dispatch senior Treasury officials and to ensure close consultation between the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank (ECB), and other central banks to provide needed liquidity and credit. Other suggestions based on Washington's own experience in 2008-2009 included a TARP-like mechanism and rigorous stress tests to help shore up shaky European banks; a ‘lender of last resort' in the form of the ECB to ensure full confidence in the European banking system; and an increase in government spending to stimulate the private sector rather than German-enforced austerity -- all sound, rational economic advice that was perceived as successful (depending upon your perspective) in resolving the U.S. crisis.

But as the crisis deepened and, when it became increasingly apparent that Europe's economic problems were causing serious disruptions to America's own tenuous economic recovery, the Obama administration adopted a more forceful approach. Frequent visits to Europe -- on occasion uninvited and unwanted -- by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Under Secretary Lael Brainard, who made more than 17 trips to Europe from 2010-2011; more urgent phone calls between President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders. Yet the United States did not contribute to the IMF emergency fund created to help Europe and other countries affected by the debt crisis, although Brazil, China, India, and Russia did donate funds. Interestingly, European governments have repeatedly turned to Beijing for help during the crisis.

Although the administration increased its transatlantic operational tempo, its message and policy fell flat. And here is why: Europe's debt crisis is fundamentally a political crisis, not an economic one, although divergent European economic policies clearly fuel it. The Treasury Department certainly had part of the policy answer, but it could never comprehend the intense politics surrounding a 60-year integration project designed to prevent war. (What does war have to do with a currency union, inflation, and bail-outs? Plenty, according to the architects of the European Union.)

Despite Obama's personal popularity in Europe, European prickliness has been at an all-time high, as the last thing it wanted was an economic lecture from a country that it believed unleashed the crisis in the first place (thanks, subprime mortgage crisis!), boasted a whopping 105 percent debt-GDP ratio, and had just lost its AAA-credit rating. Obama's serious cajoling of Merkel during a state visit in June 2011 had little effect.

Happily for Obama, Europe never became an issue in the 2012 campaign. Arguably, if the president wins, his victory will have been brought to you by the letters E, C, and B, as the cataclysmic eurozone breakup scenario that many feared dissipated thanks to ECB President Mario Draghi's verbal bazooka uttered in July, "The ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro." If Obama is reelected, it is probably safe to assume that the administration's policy toward the debt crisis will remain the same and may even receive less focus and attention in a second term as European borrowing costs fall. If this is the case, an historic foreign-policy mistake will have been made as America's European allies drift away from the United States and are internally consumed by debt and growing nationalism, separatism, and xenophobia.

Romney does not have a stated policy on Europe or the debt crisis, but he has used Europe as a cautionary tale of what will happen to the United States if it follows European economic policy. In his foreign-policy speeches and July visit to Europe, Romney vowed to renew and deepen America's relationship with its closest partners and allies, particularly Britain.

Germany needs to be added to this list as well. Yet it is unclear how Romney would operationalize this policy and in what spheres: defense and security (NATO), economic and trade (a U.S.-European Union Free Trade Agreement), political engagement (renewed strategic partnerships), or all three? Will Europe and its debt crisis be a priority, or will it be on a long list of foreign policies that must be reviewed and evaluated in due course? After spending two years in France as he undertook his missionary work, will Romney have a greater sense of, and interest in, European political dynamics than Obama has exhibited? Will he select senior officials that have a deep understanding of Europe?

What is clear is that either Obama or Romney will be confronted by a Europe that is undergoing an historic and transformative political, economic, and societal realignment. A core, AAA-rated Europe, more integrated and under German economic leadership, is beginning to form, and it will be an important global economic partner to the United States. A peripheral Europe, left out of the region's integration efforts by choice or by dint of local financial situations, is also emerging, leaving Britain and Poland, both important U.S. strategic partners, outside of Europe's new institutional architecture. Can Europe remained unified under this scenario? Will transatlantic relations need to adapt to these changes?

Both Europe and the United States must recognize that they share similar challenges: an increasingly expensive social safety net, unsustainable debt and deficits, and political polarization that prevent policy action. Rather than pointing fingers across the Atlantic over who has the worst fiscal situation, perhaps we should begin an intense, serious leadership discussion and find new solutions to get our economic houses in order as quickly as possible.

After all, it is the future of the West that is at stake.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Rights and Responsibility

The candidates may disagree on some human rights issues, but the next president will face challenges that transcend partisan lines.

How might tomorrow's presidential election affect U.S. policy on human rights? The common wisdom is that unlike their sharp divergences on domestic policy, there isn't much difference between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on foreign policy. That is only partly true.

Both Obama and Romney are outraged by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of his people, but neither has detailed how to ratchet up the pressure to stop it. Romney has largely endorsed Obama's exit strategy for Afghanistan, emphasizing perhaps a more gradual withdrawal but adding no details to Obama's disturbingly vague pronouncements about protecting women's rights after the troops depart. On China and Russia, Romney's rhetoric has been tougher than Obama's. But that's mainly the case when Romney is addressing a perceived strategic threat (Russia) and economic threat (China), with no visible difference between the candidates on how to address these countries' worsening crackdowns on domestic critics. 

With respect to Obama's more muscular policies, Romney largely supported the military effort to stop the Qaddafi government's killings in Libya as well as Obama's decision to send military advisors to Africa to help capture the leaders of the murderous Lord's Resistance Army.   Depending perhaps on which of his foreign-policy advisors prevail, Romney will likely pursue Obama's pragmatic approach to the International Criminal Court, working with the institution to address mass atrocities (at least by non-allies) while seeking neither to join the court nor to cripple it as George W. Bush's administration did in its early years.

By the same token, both candidates seem to share the same blind spots for human rights advocacy, largely exempting allies such as Bahrain, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan. On the biggest blind spot -- Israel -- Obama was initially willing to press Israeli leaders on the expansion of settlements. Recently, however, the candidates have been competing to embrace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard line toward Palestinians in a bid to capture the diminishing slice of American Jewry whose vote is determined by such pandering.

Obama, meanwhile, has used drones to kill terrorist suspects without articulating legal criteria that are focused enough to ensure compliance with international law. That allows unscrupulous leaders to interpret his precedent as license to designate their own political opponents as terrorists (say, Russia's Chechens or China's Uighurs) and order their targeted killing wherever they might be found. Romney has endorsed the drone program without qualification in this regard.

That said, differences between the candidates are apparent in several areas, including counterterrorism. To his credit, Obama has ended torture such as waterboarding that the Bush administration authorized under the guise of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Today, all U.S. interrogators must comply with the Army's Field Manual -- an important step toward curbing abuse. Romney, by contrast -- while foreswearing "torture" as Bush did -- has said he would allow some unspecified "enhanced" interrogation techniques that go beyond those prohibited by the field manual, and he does not consider waterboarding torture. That is particularly worrying because, under his policy of "looking forward," not back, Obama has refused to authorize the investigation and prosecution of the Bush torturers. As a result, political leaders in the United States can see torture as a "policy option" rather than the crime it clearly is.  

While failing to keep his promise to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, Obama has at least drawn the line at not adding new detainees, confining the detention center to a Bush legacy issue. New terrorism suspects have been tried in regular federal court. Obama briefly attempted to try some Guantánamo detainees in federal court, but ultimately capitulated to bipartisan pressure to use military commissions instead, even though, operating under new and sometimes unfair rules, military commissions have proven grindingly slow and ineffective. Romney has spoken approvingly about Guantánamo -- at one point in 2007 saying, "We ought to double Guantánamo."

Another area of possible disagreement is in policy toward the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Bush administration boycotted the council because of its fixation on Israel and its domination by abusive governments. The Obama administration has taken a different and highly effective approach, joining the council and putting in the diplomatic time and effort to build coalitions with democratic governments outside the West. Historically, many of these democracies sided with neighboring autocrats out of a misguided sense of regional solidarity.   Today, they are the cornerstone of a human rights majority that has persuaded the council to take strong action against a range of repressive countries, including Eritrea, Iran, and Syria. Romney, however, seems to deride such coalition-building as "leading from behind," and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, one of Romney's foreign policy advisors, was an architect of Bush's boycott of the council.

On the Arab Spring, both Obama and Romney stress the importance of new governments respecting minority rights, religious freedom, and the rights of women, but they offer few specifics on how to encourage that. Yet differences emerge in their attitudes toward Islamists who win electoral majorities. Obama has made clear that he respects that choice while expecting the new governments to uphold the rights of all. Romney, in the foreign-policy debate, suggested that Egypt's election of a Muslim Brotherhood president was a development on par with the death of 30,000 people in Syria and the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

On sexual rights, the candidates' domestic views suggest differences in their foreign policies.   Obama, having embraced same-sex marriage and ended "don't ask, don't tell," has been a strong supporter of gay and lesbian rights overseas. Romney hasn't. Obama ended the "gag rule" prohibiting U.S. funding to overseas organizations that use their own funds to inform women of abortion options. Romney, who supports reversal of Roe v. Wade at home, says he would reinstate the gag rule abroad.

These differences aside, whoever wins tomorrow's election will face a host of challenges that are likely to transcend partisan lines. Is there a way to circumvent Russia's and China's veto to step up pressure to end the killing in Syria? What is the best way to balance the need for continuing relations with Moscow and Beijing against the importance of speaking out about their worsening repression? How can rights be protected in post-2014 Afghanistan or in the Islamist-led countries of the Middle East and North Africa? Given the key role of the Internet in combating autocratic rule, will the next president back legislation prohibiting U.S. Internet companies from cooperating with censorship efforts? Only when faced with the enormity of these and other critical tasks will the next president reveal his true human rights colors.

STR/AFP/GettyImages