Why The President Has To Convince Europe It’s Still Number One

Barack Obama

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Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior FellowInterviewer:     
Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor

President Barack Obama’s six-day trip to Europe is intended to reinforce the transatlantic relationship and find common cause on how to address the changes convulsing the Mideast and North Africa, says CFR’s European expert, Charles A. Kupchan.

“It’s really going to be an effort to repeatedly put out the message that the transatlantic relationship is alive and well,” says Kupchan, “and then leveraging that broader message to address some of the specific issues on the table, including Libya and support for democracy in the Middle East.” Obama will also deal with discontent in the European Union, manifested mainly in Germany, over the bailouts and the eurozone crisis, and he will meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss persuading the Russians to agree to joint missile defence with the United States.

President Obama leaves Monday for a trip that will take him to Ireland; the UK for a state visit; to Deauville, France, for a G8 meeting; and then to Poland. What is the main purpose of this trip?

The headline for the trip will be the importance of the transatlantic community and the enduring bond between the United States and Europe. There have been concerns from the beginning that the Obama administration had downgraded the importance of the transatlantic link. The countries of Central Europe were particularly concerned about the so-called “reset” policy of improving relations with Russia, worried that that rapprochement with Moscow was coming at the expense of their own priorities. The trip also comes as the culmination of a long effort by the Obama administration to say “No, that is a misperception and the United States today values Europe and the transatlantic link as much as it ever has.” But at the same time, the president will want to stress that this bond between the two sides of the Atlantic increasingly has to focus beyond the Atlantic zone, and in particular on the Middle East and North Africa.

The Middle East speech that the president gave on Thursday was in some respects an open advocacy in advance of the G8 meeting [Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, and the United States] for the need for concerted transatlantic action on a new aid and trade package with the region and the importance of standing firmly beyond the forces of liberalization across the Middle East.

The Middle East will clearly figure prominently at the G8 meeting. Will he be seeking to get the Europeans to push for more aid?

Yes. The Libya operation will come up in Britain and in Deauville at the G8 because the main players [France, the UK, the United States, and Italy] in that air campaign will be present. There will be an assessment of how the campaign is going and what can be done to increase the pressure on Muammar Qaddafi to step down, who should be doing what, what’s the appropriate division of labour in the coalition. The G8, in contrast to the G20, has more of a political role even though it is still generally seen as an economic organisation.

You’ll have a discussion at Deauville also of the broader political strategy for the Middle East coupled with a set of concrete steps taken to support economic development in the Middle East, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, which are the vanguard of the so-called Arab Spring. And the kinds of issues that will be under discussion will be debt forgiveness, new efforts to stimulate private enterprise, and in general a broad discussion about what the United States and Europe can do together to jumpstart the foundations of a more competitive and dynamic economy. The president on Thursday gave a statistic that’s quite startling: that if you take out oil exports, the Middle East as a whole has a total export value the size of Switzerland. That gives some sense of the scale of the work that needs to be done to modernize the economies in the Middle East.

In the president’s speech he also talked about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, and he kind of bluntly told the Palestinians that it will be fruitless for them to press at September’s General Assembly for the approval of a Palestinian state without having negotiated it first with Israel. In other words, he indicated the United States would try to block it if they push ahead. Does he have the support of the Europeans and other members of the G8 on this?

France and the UK have indicated that they might support a Palestinian bid for statehood in the UN if negotiations do not in the meantime yield progress. Paris and London appear to be putting pressure on the Israeli government to advance the peace talks. Germany and Italy have indicated that they would not be prepared to support a unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinians. The United States, as you say, has made clear it opposes a unilateral move by the Palestinians.

What about the visit to the UK? Is the Anglo-American “special relationship” as strong as ever?

One of the reasons that Obama is going to the UK and is having a state visit–this is Obama’s first state visit during his presidency–is in many respects to signify that the special relationship between Britain and the United States is alive and well. In addition to the broad concern in Europe that it lost the privileged place in American strategy, the British in particular felt that they no longer were the go-to country when the United States wanted to do business in the world. Obama is clearly saying, “You’re still number one, this special relationship is as important today as it has been in the past.” That is the broad message the president is going to try and keep the headlines of the trip hitched to.

This is not going to be a trip that’s in the weeds; this is not going to be a trip where there will be daily announcements of specific policy initiatives. It’s really going to be an effort to repeatedly put out the message that the transatlantic relationship is alive and well and then leveraging that broader message to address some of the specific issues on the table, including Libya and support for democracy in the Middle East. The stop in Warsaw will be useful in that respect because the president will encourage the Poles and others to draw on their own experience in transitioning from the Soviet bloc to market democracy, and to draw on that experience in helping the Middle East. The president specifically said on Thursday that we will launch enterprise funds for the Middle East modelled on those that successfully helped capitalism take root in central Europe.

At the G8 meeting, he will be meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany has almost ostentatiously stayed out of the NATO involvement in Libya. What’s the mood in Germany like these days toward the United States?

The mood in Germany right now is irritable and inward, and it’s not the United States that’s the cause. It’s the eurozone crisis, and the trajectory of the European Union as a whole. The decision by Germany not to join the Libya operation and to abstain from the vote in the UN Security Council was a sign of a Germany that really is subject right now to considerable discontent politically. Merkel has been struggling with weakening public support, and in many respects she used her opposition to the Libya operation as a way of trying to buck up her domestic situation, and it really hasn’t helped much. The core of the problem is that the German electorate is very uncomfortable with the bailouts for Greece, Portugal, and Ireland, which has caused a broader discontent about European integration as a whole. This discontent is taking place not just in Germany but right across the European Union, and it manifests itself in part by the surging electoral strength of far right parties, from Denmark to the Netherlands to Sweden to Hungary to Finland.

One of the issues that will be interesting to keep an eye on next week is this: Does Obama tip-toe into this issue? In many respects, the United States doesn’t have a dog in the fight. This is a European issue, but at the same time the United States cares very deeply about the integrity of the eurozone and the stability of the euro. I’m sure that at least behind the scenes Obama will be talking to Merkel and other European leaders about the necessity of getting the bailout system firm and efficient to stabilise the euro. And it would also not be unhelpful for Obama to make very clear that the United States strongly supports the European Union and the project of European integration, because this is a moment of second guessing and introspection across Europe. To the degree that Obama can help calm nerves and make very clear how important the European project is to the United States and to the transatlantic community, he might be able to lend a helping hand.

In France, is he going to come under a lot of heat over the arrest in New York of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

It is entirely plausible he will get asked about the case at a press conference, but it will not in any way be a large issue during the trip. In France, Obama is going to try to keep the focus on the broader issues of aid in the Middle East. Also we will see missile defence come up because Obama has a bilateral with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the margins at the G8, and they are engaged in a discussion about the Russian buy-in to missile defence.

When he gets to Central Europe, there will be very little attention on Strauss-Kahn. There the focus will be on the American commitment to Central Europe, and it’s worth mentioning that his visit coincides with a summit of Central and Eastern European leaders. Over 20 other leaders will be there, he will have dinner with them, he will stress the American commitment to the region and probably talk about a new initiative to base a squadron of American fighter aircraft in Poland. The Poles have always looked to get Uncle Sam on Polish territory, and this is one way of doing that. Another issue that’s likely to come up is the visa waiver question; the Poles long to be able to travel to the United States without getting a visa. Obama’s been working on that front, and as far as I know we don’t yet have a resolution.

This post originally appeared at Council on Foreign Relations.