PARIS: Will the year 2009 and the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency mark the beginning of a new era in transatlantic relations, or will the old divisions linger, nurtured by the depth and gravity of the economic crisis? Will the crisis lead to nationalistic and selfish attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic, stymieing the long-awaited rapprochement, if not a full reconciliation?
It is, of course, too early to tell. Even if the left wing of the European left – like the most liberal of America’s Democrats – voices concerns that Obama has selected a far too centrist cabinet, a classical form of anti-Americanism is bound to recede in Europe. It is very unlikely that Europeans will take to the streets to denounce the “essence of the United States – what America is as much as what America does – as they did during the Bush era and even during the Clinton years. America’s image in Europe has changed profoundly since November 4, and the style of Obama’s diplomacy once he becomes president will probably confirm that change.
Yet in the realm of transatlantic relations, as is true globally, it is unwise to expect too much from a single man, whatever his exceptional qualities. Fundamental problems remain, and new ones are likely to emerge.
First, whatever the brutal style of the new Russia under Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, the Soviet Union no longer exists and no longer constitutes the common threat that was the “glue of the Alliance until 1989. Unless something very wrong happens, a new cold war is not about to start.
Second, there is a continuing structural imbalance between the way Europe looks at America, i.e., with passion and concern, and the way America looks at Europe, i.e., with mild interest giving way to growing indifference. During the Cold War, Europe was America’s first line of defense. In the current global age, Asia, the Middle East, and even maybe Africa will constitute greater priorities for the US.
Third, even if America under Obama praises and even practices multilateralism, Americans are far from ready to accept the reality of a multi-polar world. They may write about it conceptually, but its meaning – a world in which their country is only “primus inter pares – has not really penetrated the national psyche.
America’s internationalism remains grounded in the idea of American “exceptionalism – a unique role and sense of mission. It is an approach to the world with which Europeans have great difficulty coming to terms. Even with Obama as president, they may be quick to denounce the combination of arrogance and hypocrisy that they see as linked to America’s view of her “special and unique mission.
Fourth, if US diplomacy changes in style and content, will Europe be ready to face the challenge when America calls for help? One early test is likely to be Afghanistan, when a smiling but firm Obama turns to Europe and says directly: “You have backed me in immense numbers. I thank you for it. But now I do not need your symbolic votes; I need your concrete support. I need the further engagement of your troops in Afghanistan!
I suspect that European leaders will not respond eagerly. Most are convinced that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and they know that public opinion, especially in time of great economic hardship, has no appetite for such operations. Europeans have a traditional tendency to denounce American military adventurism while relying on the US as their protector.
Fifth, to these “old problems one must add a new one: the likely impact on transatlantic relations of the worst financial crisis in decades. Protectionism in the classical sense of the term is unlikely. We have learned the lessons of 1929. But public subsidies to “national champions may prove to be as destabilizing for the climate of international cooperation as tariff barriers were in the past. The temptation to “appease suffering populations with populist, selfish measures may grow as the crisis deepens.
Paradoxically, too, the “greening of America – an America that discovers late but with passion its responsibility for the planet’s survival – may lead to a competitive transatlantic race for first prize in ecological good behavior.
And one could multiply the subjects of possible tensions, from nuclear disarmament – too much for the French, too little for many others – to the best ways to deal with Iran, Russia, and China.
The essential issue lies elsewhere. For Europe, the election of Barack Obama is a crucial test. Will Europe rise to the occasion and seize the opportunity created by America’s daring and exhilarating choice to prove to itself and to the world that the old continent can exist as a power and a united actor?
Dominique Moisi is a visiting professor at Harvard University. His book The Geopolitics of Emotion was just published in France. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).