History teaches us that in their second terms U.S. Presidents often change tack and sometimes quite noticeably. In general, they become more detached from domestic policy considerations because they don’t have to seek re-election: this gives them more leeway on foreign policy. The results can be uneven as some use their second term to launch a grand political initiative they hope will ensure that their legacy lives on.
Will this be the case for Barack Obama too? Or will he remain a primarily domestic policy president? It’s difficult to say in advance – the impact of future “black swans” in the shape of unlooked-for events can’t be underestimated. Yet this president is in an almost unique position; his legacy may well be himself as representative of America’s changing society – especially after his re-election, which confirmed the trend that is underway and showed that his 2008 victory was no political accident. In that context, there may be less pressure to seek foreign policy successes as the hallmark of a second Obama mandate. The focus will be at home precisely because President Obama must lead his country by accommodating and channelling the internal forces of change that brought him to the White House. The declarations made during the electoral campaign should therefore be taken seriously, and we should expect the White House to stay more focused on “nation building at home” than addressing the world’s problems.
Domestic-first could prove for Obama to be Hobson’s Choice – no choice at all. The aftermath of last November’s elections has been the search for compromise on the so-called fiscal cliff, with an even harder debate on the debt ceiling to take shape over the next few months. In the coming four years, the administration will be under constant pressure to cut costs and contain taxes in the context of a likely “back to growth” scenario.
It’s hard to imagine that this domestic policy scenario will have no impact on the administration’s willingness to engage abroad. It will not be simple to square the circle between increasing demand for leadership and steady (or in relative terms declining) resources. This will require a great deal of pragmatism, a cool head and common sense. True to these principles, the Obama administration will respond case by case to international crises that may unfold around the world, but it will not seek adventures abroad. It will use all the tools at its disposal, but its strong preference will be for sanctions and diplomatic engagement. Although it will not balk at the use of force, if needed, it will try to minimise the costs. If this is a “doctrine” – the much talked about “Obama doctrine” – it’s a pragmatic, down to earth and level-headed one. John Kerry, the next Secretary of State, will be asked to be the main interpreter of this doctrine, and in many respects his designation promises continuity. Like Hillary Clinton before him, Kerry is a former senator and a member of the Democratic establishment. Like her, he shaped his vision of the world during the cold war, and also like her he is unlikely to be lured by simplistic formulas and will go for substance over rhetoric. Equally, Chuck Hagel’s controversial pick for the Pentagon and John Brennan’s choice for CIA, reinforce the Obama doctrine’s main tenets – including the “drone-first” selective approach to security.
“A healthy transatlantic relationship requires two economically solid partners and in this respect, the main contribution Europe can make is to overcome its own crisis through deeper integration”
Three sets of implications of this mind-set for the U.S.-EU relationship suggest themselves, and each corresponds to a different preposition. The first is “in”: U.S. involvement in Europe will decline but slowly. This should not be misconstrued, for it doesn’t mean that Europe has become irrelevant to American onlookers. Rather, it means that it is not a major source of worry, at least if the euro-crisis remains more or less under control.
From a geostrategic point of view, there is no reason why the U.S. should remain primarily focused on this theatre, so the real question for us Europeans is whether Washington will also take this more detached attitude towards the Mediterranean and Middle East, leaving the front row to regional powers and the EU. Judging by Obama’s record, this could prove to be the case. The most recent crisis in Gaza put Egypt, Turkey and Europe in a frenzy, while the American president (who never visited Israel during his first term) was touring south east Asia. It was a distinct, almost tangible demonstration of America’s present inclination to let regional powers take charge – while advising or leading from behind. And it’s a tendency that is likely to be strengthened by the energy revolution now underway in the U.S. as the vast availability of shale gas there makes America increasingly independent of Gulf producers.
The fuss in Europe about the “pivot to Asia” – one of the centrepieces, in terms of rhetoric at any rate, of Obama’s foreign policy – has been somewhat ill advised. If it means a general increase in attention paid to Asia, Europe is also pivoting towards Asia. This should come as no surprise given the economic patterns, demography and dynamism of Asia. If it also means an increasing attention to the new geostrategic realities, it should be welcomed. The U.S. presence in the region is a stabilising factor, considering the territorial disputes that trouble the South China Sea and East Asia, and, more generally, the need to peacefully accommodate China’s rise. And a positive understanding between the U.S. and the new Chinese leadership is in the interest of Europe. Both Europeans and Asians seem to think that they are better off with America engaged. This is, in itself, a foreign policy success for Obama.
The U.S. will in any case not disappear from Europe; it will maintain an important presence if only because NATO remains for the U.S. too the most successful alliance ever. Americans won’t forget that an important NATO member like Turkey is in the forefront of one of the most troubled areas on earth. The U.S. will continue to “lead from behind” on such other issues as supporting the Kosovo-Serbia negotiations, and it will continue to look to Russia – even if the first Obama term opened with the “reset” and closed with its failure. All this will happen against the backdrop of a declining presence in Europe and the Mediterranean, but this should not be understood as a loss of interest.
If Washington is less eager to be involved in Europe, it is keener to work withEurope. And John Kerry is well suited to make this happen. All the talks about the U.S. and Europe sharing the same values and interest might seem a little trite, but this makes them no less true. The U.S. knows that when push comes to shove, Europeans are the most dependable allies they have. From the European response to the call-up in Afghanistan to sanctions against Iran, facts are there to prove it. The big news – as suggested before – is the willingness of the U.S. to work with the Europeans while leaving them at the helm. The rationale of “leading from behind” is that the U.S. is ready to stay committed, provide means that the Europeans don’t have and give political support without necessarily being in the driving seat. This is what happened in Libya and is now happening in Mali – where we are confronted with a dramatic scenario: in both cases, Obama’s hands-off approach left a vacuum filled first of all by France – rather than by Europe. A less pre-eminent U.S. therefore, opens up major questions for intra-European relations.
On a different note, another major question is whether the uncoordinated votes on the Palestinian issue at the UN will actually make it possible for the U.S. and Europeans to attempt a virtuous division of labour on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
“The big news is the willingness of the U.S. to work with the Europeans while leaving them at the helm”
An even bigger challenge comes from the Syrian civil war and its vast regional ramifications, where new forms of co-operation must be forged with some key regional actors now under great pressure to contain the spillover. The Iranian issue is the other unavoidable puzzle. Here Obama has three obvious options, none of which is attractive: he can stop a potential Israeli strike, fully support it or pre-empt it by taking the initiative. The main problem with each option is that they all depend on a very effective communication of Washington’s goals and the thresholds for coercive action toward both allies and adversaries. The potential for misperceptions is dangerously high.
The shift from being involved in Europe to being engaged with Europe should be welcomed. This provides us with the opportunity to demonstrate that the Old Continent is not part of the problem but of the solution when it comes to security problems with Europe’s eastern and southern neighbours.
Much the same logic applies to economic matters. The most acute phase of the sovereign debt crisis may now be behind us, but the risk is of a prolonged recession in Europe with negative global repercussions. Reversing this trend is key for the American economy too – therefore U.S. pressures on Europe (to address the root causes of its slowdown) will continue. A healthy transatlantic relationship requires two economically solid partners and in this respect, the main contribution Europe can make is to overcome its own crisis through deeper integration.
Closer economic co-operation between the U.S. and Europe could provide a boost to world growth as well as to their respective economies. A transatlantic common market place – however difficult to be built at a delicate time for trade relations – would be a formidable economic entity, claiming the lion’s share of the world’s trade and investment flow.
A third preposition, highlighted by the problems shared by the transatlantic economy, is “towards”. At the same time as working in Europe and with Europe, the U.S. will also be sending messages and requests towards Europe. The U.S. will not say flat out that Europeans have to fend for themselves in their immediate neighbourhood, but, yes, it will be asking for a more direct engagement. This means that Europeans should get ready to shoulder their part of defence costs, and that above all they should get ready to pool their military resources more than before. This could be a powerful incentive for closer European co-operation in foreign policy and defence.
Irrespective of whether it’s “in”, “with” or “towards” Europe, the essential truth of the transatlantic relationship is that Europe and the U.S. need to work together. It’s an old adage, but it has renewed relevance when both Europe and America are so preoccupied with their domestic problems. It is paradoxical that the echo of European affairs in America’s domestic debate focuses on the social risks or opportunities (depending on where one stands) of a convergence between fiscal policies on the two sides of the Atlantic.
The need to work together will moderate the domestic-first inclinations of both sides. The transatlantic partnership must become an antidote to introversion – an attitude that Europe, because of its unfavourable demographic trends and energy dependence, can afford much less than the U.S. A post-American Europe has become the precondition for saving the link to the U.S. This is the lesson to be learned from Obama’s first term and it will be tested in his second.