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Obama's Wish List for Europe

By Michael F. Harsch and Calin Trenkov-Wermuth

European leaders have embraced Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, expecting the beginning of a new, brighter chapter in transatlantic relations. French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed the feelings of many when he stated that Obama's election "has raised enormous hope in France, in Europe and beyond."

The new president is expected to make some policy reversals - such as closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp - that will please many Europeans. But the initial euphoria about change in the Washington could wear off quickly as Europeans realize that America's overall national interest - remaining the leading economic and military power in the world - will not change and will continue to guide US foreign policy.

NATO's 60th anniversary summit in France and Germany in April, 2009 may well offer Europeans their first reality check on the 44th president. While the global financial crisis is likely to dominate the transatlantic agenda until then, key security challenges will need to be addressed urgently. We therefore expect Obama to arrive at the summit not only to praise the Alliance's past achievements, but to also present a "wish list" of things he expects America's European allies to contribute to US political and military efforts around the globe. The demands will signal that the new administration takes its partnership with Europe seriously - something Europeans routinely request.

Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently stated that he does not believe the Obama administration will make any unrealistic demands once it comes into office. Steinmeier is likely to be disappointed.

The first item on Obama's wish list will most likely be greater European burden-sharing in Afghanistan. The danger of a NATO failure in Afghanistan is real, and this issue will dominate the NATO summit's agenda. Obama has made it clear in his first statements after the election that the war in Afghanistan will be a priority for his administration. It seems almost certain that he is going to send more US troops to Afghanistan, and he is very likely to call on European nations to do the same. He may also insist that NATO allies like Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium remove "national caveats" that limit how their forces can be used. These restrictions prevent the commander of the international forces in Afghanistan (ISAF) from permanently deploying their troops in the more dangerous south and south-east of the country. Supported by those NATO members operating in the south, like Britain, Canada, and the Netherlands, Obama could make it clear that disparate national rules bring into question the principle of solidarity on which the Alliance is based.

The second issue likely to come up concerns transatlantic strategy towards Iran's nuclear program. Obama has indicated that he is willing to talk to the Iranian leadership if this would help to keep the US safe. European leaders would welcome such a policy change in the United States, which broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980. However, before starting any negotiations, Obama will expect the Europeans to agree on more than just 'carrots' promising rewards if Iran should abolish its nuclear program. The new administration will also demand agreement on credible 'sticks' in case the Iranians are not ready to compromise. These could be simply tougher economic and political sanctions but Obama has also made it clear that he will not put the military option off the table.

The new administration may also urge Europeans to take a tougher stance on China, which is seen as undermining the West's efforts to put pressure on Iran. China has dramatically increased its economic ties with Iran, filling some of the gaps created by the departure of American and European companies. Recently, Iran announced that trade exchanges with China will exceed $25 billion this year, compared to $9.2 billion in 2005, and unless this trend is stopped or reversed, the threat of tougher economic sanctions will not have the desired impact. China is also seen as the principal backer of the government in Khartoum, which has been effectively delaying the hybrid UN-African Union mission designed to curb the genocide in Darfur. Obama is also likely to urge greater transatlantic unity in pushing China on its support for Sudan.

Finally, relations with Russia will be at the top of the new president's NATO agenda. Moscow has shown it will continue to be a provocateur, as demonstrated by President Dmitry Medvedev's announcement the day after Obama's win that Russia intends to deploy missiles in its Western enclave Kaliningrad if the US goes ahead with its plans for a missile defense system in Europe. Russia will continue to strive for restoring its former glory and power, in the process intimidating its neighbors with threats of cutting off energy supplies, with cyber attacks, or even by using military force again. The US under President Obama will still call for a tougher stance and a more unified reaction from the European countries to Russian threats, especially from Germany, France and Italy. Obama will urge the big European powers to send a clear message to the central and eastern European NATO members that they are ready to defend them, and he will reaffirm the US commitment to the accession of Georgia and the Ukraine to NATO.

President Obama is likely to reinvigorate the transatlantic partnership, but he will act firmly when it comes to issues which are important to America's national interest. While Bush often chose to simply ignore the Europeans, Obama is ready to reengage them. But Obama will ask for things in return, and he will have to prove to his domestic critics that reaching out to America's European allies again pays off in the form of stronger contributions from them.

The challenge for European leaders will be to defend their own interests, while not disappointing the new administration. If Europe wishes to have a significant impact on world politics, beyond the economic sphere, the Europeans will have to demonstrate that they are ready to play their part. Europe's leaders should get ready for change, including tough demands from a new and self-confident American President, demands which will be more difficult to turn down than in the past.

Michael F. Harsch is a Visiting Fellow at the SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations and a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin.

Calin Trenkov-Wermuth recently completed his Ph.D in international relations at the University of Cambridge and is currently conducting research on transatlantic relations at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (16)

themick Author Profile Page:

This article expresses the sentiment that many Europeans feel regarding the Iraq misadventure and the quasi-colonial war in the Hindu Kush. i.e "colonial counterinsurgency - been there, done that, no win ..."

pmcohen30 Author Profile Page:

Well, our so called European allied while complaining regularly about not being taken into account by US, when comes the time to show some muscle they become pacifists, marching into the streets waving the rainbow flags still in full view on balconies all over Italy. They did not refrain from burning the American flags or even display joy when 9/11 happened. So in order to be our friends the least they can do is to be able to defend themselves and not wait for the Americans to do it.
In Europe damn if we do damn if we don`t.
Enough of this, Obama should send their way a loud,clear and strong message. Mytwocents

mentar Author Profile Page:

Europe wishing for a "significant impact in world politics"? When will this nonsense ever die?

Let me be blunt: The average European citizen has no interest in this kind of international powermongering which seems so prevalent in the American point of view. Europe is in Afghanistan (and less in Iraq) very unwillingly as part of international cooperation commitments. It if was merely about what European citizens wanted, they'd simply leave the gulf region and would let the various groups of fanatics kill each other. The thing they wanted the least was the Bush-style crusade. "Leave us alone and clean up your mess yourself" would be a proper analogy.

For the love of god, get this into your head after all the years. Europeans don't CARE about this kind of power games. And as long as you don't alter your perspective accordingly, you'll never properly grasp what's making Europe tick.

MPatalinjug Author Profile Page:

Yonkers, New York
28 November 2008

Even this early in the game, European leaders--particularly those of France, Germany and Italy--will very likely be at least lukewarm to if not actually oppose President Harack Obama's overtures for them to contribute their just and proportional share to the burden of defending Europe and prosecuting the war against terror particularly in Afghanistan where it is in "a downward spiral" according to the latest National Intelligence Estimate.

At bottom, the Europeans would rather that the United States continue to do as it has done in the past, which is pretty much to shoulder more than its just and proportioal share of those burdens.

In short, the Europeans prefer to have their cake and eat it too.

No longer. President Barack Obama and his administration will insist that Europe do more and that, in the case of Afghanistan, it lift its "caveats" regarding the deployment of their troops to high-risk areas.

If the Europeans are serious about prosecuting the war against terror, it should not impose those conditions which tie the hands of the Commander and thus limit the potential impact his forces are able to make on the "enemy."

Mariano Patalinjug

salihutakko Author Profile Page:

Mr. G10 open up your eyes & stop acting arrogance as if you're just coming out from a war decision making with George Bush. E.U is helping matters alot that u hate to admit!

Supertzar Author Profile Page:

The authors of this piece is way off in noe-con dreamland.

1. Obama have made it clear that he wants to re-build the relationship between America and its allies.

2. Obama was against the stupid fiasco in Iraq, and would not ask others to be a part of a stupid war (that's how the relationship got sour in the first place).

3. Obama is not dumb (he's no Bush), he know that given the history of Germany, they will not be a past of offensive warfare.

4. Obama did not jump the shark and threaten to start a new cold war (or WW3) when the conflict in South Ossetia heated up. He stayed cool, analysed the situation, and saw that it was not as black and white as McCain and other neo-cons claimed. He also know that the situation in South Ossetia, and the relationship with Russia must be dealt with in a sensibel way.

5. Obama will use diplomacy and he will cooporate with other nations, no more "with us or against us", "bring 'em on", "old Europe", "freedom fries", or other stupidities.

January 20 2009 stupid leaves the White House, and Change moves in.

garrafa10 Author Profile Page:

"The U.S needs to get over their 4th Nov elections enthusiasm and face the economy challenges that in future is going to make it impossible for the U.S to maintains its military might and is favouring countries that are seeking global solutions to global problems."

What a load of twaddle and nonsense. Please name those countries seeking global solutions? China? Russia? The Eunuch Union? They appear to have no problems seeking national solutions in Georgia and the Ivory Coast, to name but a few places. Obama needs to clean house at State and render impotent all those who place a primacy on transatlantic relations. Not only are they not equals but also they are incapable of rendering any meaningful assistance. They cannot even arrive in Afghanistan or Iraq without US transport.

salihutakko Author Profile Page:

Today's realities (the U.S army is over stretched & financial distress is going to make war a costly and unprofitable venture to this crumbling power) are not favouring dictators talkless of bilateral decisions. Infact it is making europe a non sense by saying Mr. Obama is going to have wish-list for europe to execute. The U.S needs to stop giving orders to others, its time to listen in order to save its face!

salihutakko Author Profile Page:

Come on the U.S needs to wake up on the new realities on the ground, American capitalism is crumbling down, the imperial power is getting challenges nor day, nor night from China, emerging Russia, Iran, Pakistani intelligence elites & above all Al-qaeda. The U.S needs to get over their 4th Nov elections enthusiasm and face the economy challenges that in future is going to make it impossible for the U.S to maintains its military might and is favouring countries that are seeking global solutions to global problems.

elena4 Author Profile Page:

" ...America's overall national interest --remaining the leading economic and military power in the world ..."

While we will probably retain the world's top military capability --our economic primacy is far less assured-- for the foreseeable future, this does not mean we will be able to impose our will on most places immediately outside our regional sphere of influence (that is, outside of Central America, the Caribbean, parts of the South Pacific). For us to try to do so --in places like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus-- would be costly in blood and treasure, and for the most part either futile or counterproductive. What this means militarily is that our superiority in firepower and technology would be offset by the asymmetrical nature of wars fought in remote regions, on inhospitable terrain, and against deeply hostile populations. The only alternative to massive, total destruction --which would destroy whatever honor and respect in which the world still holds us-- would be endless, protracted wars of attrition (to which our current engagement in Afghanistan seems to be leading).
Our interests would be far better served were we to retrench back to more local and defensible foreign commitments. Basically, we need to define our foreign interests in a narrower, more minimalist way: use of the Panama Canal; freedom from hostile bases in the Caribbean; security of our shipping lanes in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans; the ability to detect serious nuclear threats around the globe combined with the means & the will to knock them out; access to certain key resources (uranium, cobalt, etc.); and a return to impermeable borders, in order to stem (or at least control) the flow of undocumented aliens. There is little need for us to expand beyond a few essential commitments such as these. To define our national interest --as do the above authors-- as maintaining our economic and military primacy in the world, makes it sound otherwise.

minco_007 Author Profile Page:

I think people around the world are not as naive as this article portrays them. Sure they know
America will continue to pursue that leadership role amongst nations, but how is the question. The abrasive tone death go it alone policy of the last 8 years has muted goodwill amongst friends and enemys. The world just wants us to have a concerned ear and listen. The rest of the world will play their part of shared goals not personal agendas beyond politics. The situation in Georgia illustrates what secret Cowboy diplomacy can do to relationships, and how an over-extended Nation has no bargaining power in world matters. We've reduced ourselves to a paper tiger. And YES! the Bush administration and Republicans are to blame.

donnasaggia Author Profile Page:

Russia as provocateur? I suppose Bush placing missiles in Poland was just a peace gesture?

bobfbell Author Profile Page:

the agenda facing our next President in foreign policy is both diverse and complex, requiring both deep thought and nuance in developing our posture to the world, much less Europe alone.

the advantage of having an intlligent analytical thinker as President, particularly one who is astute enough to surround himself with bright
and experienced people is that we can, as a nation, begin to attack foreign policy issues with both competence and a sense of priority.

No doubt Barack Obama and his team will make a few missteps and miscalculations along the way, but I, for one, will prefer a foreign and national security policy driven by intellect and calculation over one driven by idealolgy and knee jerk reaction.

If in fact, the United States does "demand" anything from our Euroean allies, at least such demands might be based on some rational calculation of whether or not they do fit into some broader plan or longer term view as to how they will impact our position in the world vs. a simplistic "my way or the highway" mindset.

Roger11 Author Profile Page:

This article seems like a Christmas wish-list for the European foreign policy elite which is probably also the dreams of the European armaments industry. Let us count the enemies it is conjuring up for us: China, Iran, Russia...

Americans voted for Obama because he was against Stupid Wars. If he wants help from Europeans, he will have to convince Europeans that Afghanistan isn't a Stupid War. Thus the tepid applause he got with his line about needing help in Afghanistan in his speech in Berlin. Since the installation of the Karzai government in Kabul, Europeans have seen the amount of heroin imported skyrocket. If he can't come up with a plan to deal with that, he won't get help. Unless you think Europe is stupid. Russia? Europeans in general aren't ready to go to war so Georgians can lord it over the South Ossetians (whoever they are) and Americans can't afford to. China? The Chinese only need to start selling US treasury bonds on the open market to bring down U.S. capitalism once and for all. Let us hope Obama isn't stupid enough to start telling the Chinese whom to trade with.

Iran? We may not like the mullahs, but it's cheaper to cut a deal with them to keep them from making a bomb than to start a war that will be many times more expensive than Iraq. Sanctions won't work. When Brown and Bush froze Iranian assets, the Iranians started pricing their oil in Euros, which was the tipping point for the international finance crisis. Let's hope Obama's not that Stupid.

Let's hope Steinmeier's right: Obama won't make unreasonable demands because unreasonable demands won't be met. Now is the time to sit down and talk with those who this article lists as our enemies. Russians, Iranians, Chinese and even Pakistani Peshtuns. Talk is cheap. War is expensive. That was certainly the meaning of MY vote for Obama.

Citizenofthepost-Americanworld Author Profile Page:

To many, the latest US presidential election results came obviously as a shock. Judging by those preemptive strikes coming from the first President-elect's "domestic critics", nostalgia would seem to remain their dominant, lingering, sentimental yearning:

1. "greater European burden-sharing" in disastrous military adventures, 2. European agreement on "credible "sticks"", i.e "tougher economic and political sanctions" to force one's ideas upon one's interlocutors, 3. "greater transatlantic unity in pushing China", 4. "tougher stance" with Russia, all the way up to its Western and Southern borders... and all the rest, too crude for one to contemplate, let alone mention publicly.

God be praised, a few more weeks remain for that transition team to hopefully figure out what is truly in the best "national interest" of the United States of America, beyond more of what has already been ruinous for this country, first morally, then politically and ultimately, financially. Unless it be irredeemably decadent, this country can do better than that.

"Yes we can"?

Let us see!

They are quite a few out there, watching. The show better be outstanding, this time.

vanitsky Author Profile Page:

If Obama uses approach to Russia as suggested by authors: "a provocateur..continue to strive for restoring its former glory and power..intimidating its neighbors with threats of cutting off energy supplies..with cyber attacks...using military force again" - NO GOOD WILL COME OF HIS PRESEDENCY.
It is impossible to frighten Russia - it's being done for centuries.
We here in Russia do believe that Obama will demonstrate new realism and ability to negotiate and make deals.
All lables used in the article are sheer lies or distorted truth or very negative attitude at least.
If Russia haters dominate the foreign policy of the new administration - it will not be good neither for US nor for Russia nor for EU.

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