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How Europe Views the U.S. Presidential Campaign

Interviewee: Josef Joffe, Publisher-Editor, Die Zeit, Hamburg
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 9, 2012

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Despite their ongoing economic troubles, Europeans are closely following the U.S. presidential campaign, says Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of the leading German newspaper Die Zeit. Joffe, also a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, says that four years ago there was great interest in whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would get the Democratic Party nomination, but the Republican Party's campaign for the 2012 nomination is "no less attention-grabbing this year." This is because, he says, "the United States is and continues to be the number one power." He says Obama's popularity was at a peak when he visited Berlin as a candidate in July 2008, but since then, his standing has slipped. Obama "appeared to the Europeans and to the Germans in particular as a mix of rock star and redeemer, against the foil of George W. Bush who was universally disliked in Europe and in particular in Germany," Joffe says.

Is the political campaigning in the United States attracting much attention in Europe, and in Germany in particular?

Of course it is, just like it was four years ago, though at that point the lineup was a great deal more dramatic: there was a woman [Hillary Clinton], there was a black or half-black [Barack Obama], competing vigorously for the Democratic Party nomination. That added a bit of extra spice to the process.

But it's really no less attention-grabbing this year, and I have a simple explanation for that. It just goes to show once more that whatever the talk is about the decline of America and it receding from the world stage, the fact is, and this attention proves it, that the United States is and continues to be the number one power. What other electoral process or primary process do we pay more attention to? I only have a vague sense of what is happening in France right now. I just know the two main contenders [Francois Hollande, Socialist Party, and President Nicolas Sarkozy] and I know even less of what's going on in other Western countries. So in the global imagination, the United States remains number one, and therefore we know such strange sets of names as [Mitt] Romney, [Rick]Santorum, [Jon] Huntsman, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry. We've been following them very closely.

What has been the public reaction to President Obama since his taking office in January 2009?

[W]hatever the talk is about the decline of America and it receding from the world stage, the fact is, and this attention proves it, that the United States is and continues to be the number one power.

When Obama appeared on the scene in the summer of 2008, especially when he came to Berlin , drawing a crowd of about 200,000, which is as much as the Rolling Stones would have pulled, he appeared to the Europeans and to the Germans in particular as a mix of rock star and redeemer against the foil of George W. Bush, who was universally disliked in Europe and in particular in Germany. Obama did to the rest of the world what he did to the American imagination: He was a surface onto which Americans and Europeans could project their fondest dreams about the new America.

Has that changed?

We are not that far apart from each other across the Atlantic. Whenever you invest your hopes and projections into a human being, especially a political human being, you are bound to be disappointed. The disappointment probably is stronger in the United States, but it is strong here too. After all, he is not a redeemer, but the president of the superpower who, once he got down to the sordid business of politics, was going to lose his luster and shine. That's a natural process in the affairs of men.

I thought you might tell me that the Europeans are so focused on Europe's problems that there isn't much time to look at the United States. Is the United States a sort of diversion from the problems affecting the European Union?

Popular attention can hold more than two objects at a time. There is a murderous economic and financial crisis in Europe. In fact, I would have never thought that both sides of the Atlantic would be in the dumps at the same time, though the crises are not identical. But for all the drama of the euro, of Greece going down the drain and Portugal next, and larger counties--Italy, France, Spain--waiting in the wings, there is still a good deal of attention left for the United States, and that shouldn't come a surprise. The United States has been and remains the number one player in the world. And even the great unwashed know that whoever is the president of the United States, the United States will have an enormous impact on their lives, on war and peace, on the future of the economy, you name it.

Is there much concern in Germany over the announcement that the United States is going to reduce its force levels in Europe by half?

That's a relatively new bit of information. This is what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been telling the Europeans at the annual Munich Security Conference this past weekend. It won't shake the European mind as much as such an announcement would have done twenty, thirty, forty years ago.

Here, as well as in the United States, the interest in foreign affairs has declined precipitously.

At that point, then, every single soldier that was being withdrawn or rotated raised fears of abandonment, and for good reason. After all, until about 1994, when the last Russian soldier went home, West Germany faced the mightiest army ever assembled in the history of the state system. One million armed men, thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, thousands of battle tanks. Soviet troops were arrayed right outside the gates of Hamburg about twenty miles from where I'm speaking. That overwhelming strategic problem has disappeared with the departure of the Soviet troops, and so the nervousness is pretty much on the small side, because western Europe no longer faces the strategic problem it faced for the first forty years of the Cold War.

How does Europe see the Middle East right now? There is a lot of concern in the United States over a deterioration in relations with the new Egyptian leadership, particularly over this possible trial of non-governmental organizations, including several Americans. Are the Germans following the Middle East closely?

Here, as well as in the United States, interest in foreign affairs has declined precipitously. In the old days, foreign news used to be page one regularly. Today, you'll hardly encounter foreign news if you go beyond the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. So, in that respect, both sides of the Atlantic share the same loss of interest in foreign affairs. But what do Americans care about? I think Americans care first about the Middle East, and then comes China, maybe Russia, and most recently, Europe is back in the news, which used to be "boresville" to Americans for the last twenty years since the Cold War ended.

Here, there is a similar phenomenon: The main interest, if there is one in foreign affairs, is the Middle East, and for the same reasons. This is where people instinctively feel is in the twenty-first century what Europe used be in the twentieth century, the main arena of conflict. And you don't have to be very sophisticated to reach that conclusion. How shall we count the ways? The Arab Spring, violence in Egypt, death by the thousands in Syria, an unresolved political situation in Libya, and democracy being somewhat more difficult to establish than to start. So in short, there's a great degree of interest in that neighborhood which now extends from Ankara to Kabul.

Is there any consensus among the elite or those who follow politics closely on who would be the better candidate? Is Romney seen as the best hope out of the Republican candidates?

I want to emphasize how similar the mood is on either side of the Atlantic. Europeans whose hearts beat basically on the left, the social democratic left, were none too enamored by what you might call the right-wing candidates--Michele Bachmann, [Rick] Perry, Herman Cain--and so you have a similar consensus again on both sides. Romney projects onto the Americans as upon the European audience the image of moderation, a bit right-of-center, and somebody who does not raise hackles as much as the Michele Bachmanns and her ilk.

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