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Obama and EU: Shedding Rose-Colored Glasses

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow for Europe Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
February 8, 2010

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President Barack Obama's decision not to attend a planned summit between the United States and the EU in May--and the testy European reaction to that decision--underscores "the unrealistic expectations" that have been in play between Europe and the United States since Obama took office, says CFR Europe expert Charles Kupchan. Obama has not met Europe's goals on climate control or on closing Guantanamo, and Europe has not lived up to Obama's expectations on Afghanistan and in organizing itself. Kupchan says that Obama is saying, "We need a Europe which is a stronger, and a more coherent partner."

A banner headline in Le Monde last week said that President Obama had decided to "snub" a scheduled summit between the European Union and United States set for Madrid in May. Is it extraordinary to have a summit scheduled and one of the major parties saying his country is too busy to attend?

We don't really know how much planning had already been completed and whether the White House had originally agreed to the summit and then backed out. Apparently, there was planning in the works. Some high-ranking State Department officials had been to Madrid to discuss the issue, but we don't know if everything had been locked in. The bottom line was that Washington made it clear that Obama was not prepared to go to Madrid for a summit, which at least from the Spanish perspective was scheduled for May. Because these U.S.-EU summits are regular fare and occur on a regular basis, the Europeans, including Spanish and EU officials, saw this as a slap in the face and a sort of back-handed way of saying that the United States does not have time for Europe.

That was the same criticism leveled at President George W. Bush--that he was giving short shrift to Europe until the end of the second term. But Obama was in Europe constantly last year, wasn't he?

The Obama administration was saying, "Get your act together. We need a Europe which is a stronger, and a more coherent partner."

The events surrounding this cancellation have been blown out of proportion in that President Obama has spent a lot of time in Europe and has focused intently on restoring goodwill across the Atlantic and in rebuilding the Atlantic partnership. It has been a priority of his administration. In that sense what we are seeing here is a blip, not a major crisis. It has gotten as much attention as it has because it is running against the unrealistic expectations that have been in place ever since Obama took office. On the European side of the Atlantic, there were unrealistic expectations on what Obama could deliver on issues like climate change and in closing Guantanamo. The administration has moved more slowly than Europe had hoped. From the Obama administration, there were unrealistic expectations about what Europe would do for America once Bush was no longer in office. The Europeans have to some extent stepped up to the plate on Afghanistan, but they have not been as forthcoming as the Obama administration had hoped and expected.

Part of what is happening now is that the initially high expectations on both sides are coming down to reality.

Who is in charge of Europe now? It is confusing because of the Lisbon Treaty that was passed at the end of last year.

It is precisely because there is no answer to that question that Washington has voiced its frustration. The intensity of the European reaction is in part a function that the Obama administration has called Europe's bluff. The EU has succeeded in getting the Lisbon Treaty passed, and it is a watershed, but on the other hand the EU is in institutional limbo. Ostensibly, the high representative, Catherine Margaret Ashton, should be the foreign policy chief. She and the president, Herman Van Rompuy, should be hosting these kinds of summits. Nonetheless, the Spanish were unwilling to let go of the perks of the rotating presidency. That's why the summit was going to be in Madrid.

The Spanish prime minister, Jean Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, is dealing with high unemployment and an overall economic crisis. Was he trying to get Obama to Madrid to raise his standing?

To raise his standing, but also as a sign of the repaired relations between Spain and the United States, which hit rock bottom during the Bush era. You may remember that after the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004, in which 191 people died, and 1,800 people were wounded, the incumbent Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's government lost in general elections three days later. Prime Minister Zapatero came into office and subsequently withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq.

And Bush was really annoyed.

Bush essentially slammed the door shut on relations with Zapatero for the rest of his administration. And Zapatero has been trying to get things back on course since Obama's been in office and to some extent it has worked. The visit of Obama to Madrid was supposed to be the capstone of that. I don't have inside information, but the Obama administration was saying, "Get your act together. We need a Europe which is a stronger, and a more coherent partner. Despite the fact that the Lisbon Treaty has passed, you are still somewhat incoherent institutionally." Part of the message that was being sent is that it is time for Europe to step up to the plate.

Part of that is the United States' need for a stronger EU presence in Afghanistan, I suppose?

Afghanistan would be at the top of the list. And Obama got some of what he wanted in the sense that the Europeans generally responded favorably to the West Point speech in early December. They are committing some more troops, not as many as Obama would like, [and] they have fallen behind on supplying trainers for Afghanistan to train Afghan troops, so it's a mixed picture. But I think it's safe to say that overall, Europe is not meeting American expectations for a more capable partner.

What about on the economic side? The United States has severe economic problems, but so does Europe.

Yes, the worry right now in Europe is that some of the southern economies--Greece in particular, Portugal, and a few other countries--now have such high levels of debt that somebody has to come in and help bail them out. Is the European Union going to do that? Are the potential crises looming within the eurozone going to threaten the euro? Is it possible that the euro may fail, and that countries would go back to their national currencies? I don't think so. But that talk is now taking place.

Is the EU set up in a way that there could be an EU stimulus plan?

On matters of trade, the EU is very much a single entity. When it comes to fiscal matters, like taxation, that's not the case. So again, the EU is stuck in a bit of a no man's land here. And when it came to dealing with the financial crisis as it unfolded, we saw a mix of collective action and national action. National action predominated to the extent that some countries were angry with other countries because they felt they were going it alone and doing things to address their own banking problems or own employment problems in a manner that could hurt Europe as a whole.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy met recently and both made a big point of wanting to improve relations with Russia. I assume this was a German initiative. Is Merkel concerned more about Russia than about the United States?

On the European side of the Atlantic, there were unrealistic expectations on what Obama could deliver on issues like climate change and in closing Guantanamo.

One of the issues is that the European project does not animate German or French politics like it used to. Politics in Europe has become more national and less European. So even though the Lisbon Treaty has passed, the trend lines are away from a Europe that becomes more centralized and more capable. Indeed, the chatter in the corridor is that Sarkozy and Merkel played a very important role in choosing a president and a high representative for the EU that would not threaten them or potentially overshadow them. So in that sense, the big powers were still holding on to the prerogatives of sovereignty.

Could you comment on the Russia issue?

One of the more interesting and controversial topics on the agenda from an American and West European perspective is engagement with Russia. Both the United States and Western Europe see this as a priority issue. That is not true for the East. In Poland, in the Baltic countries, in most of Central Europe, there is still great discomfort with Russia and a desire to buck-up NATO's collective defense capabilities because of a potential Russian threat. This is particularly acute after the war in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, and in that sense the central Europeans are uncomfortable with the German policy of economic engagement and uncomfortable with Obama's call for a "reset" of the relationship. They think it's premature to let the guard down.

It looks like Russia and the United States are going to have a new START treaty soon, which will cut the nuclear armories on both sides.

It will be the follow on to the agreement that expired last December, and will reduce warheads and launchers quite substantially on both sides.

Does this alarm the Eastern Europeans?

No, I don't think that the nuclear reduction itself alarms central Europeans. They are concerned about a broader policy of reaching out to Russia in a way that they feel could come at their expense. You may recall that a large group of Central European personalities wrote a letter to the Obama administration last year saying, "Don't forget about us." That was part of this general worry that they are being left out as the big countries of Western Europe and the United States focus on Russia. My own read is that that concern is exaggerated and that what's happening is that Central Europe is having to adjust to normalcy. Poland is becoming a normal ally like Spain, after spending two decades as a special ally, and it's now having to get used to the reality that it will be one of many European allies rather than something special.

Should we be surprised at Europe's problems?

As we talk about the failure of Europe to cohere, particularly on foreign policy and security policy, it is also important to keep in mind that the glass is at least as half full as it is half empty, and that the process of integration that Europe has been engaging in is always slow and difficult. It's only been at it for sixty years. It's worth keeping in mind that when the United States was about seventy years old in its process of integration, we had a civil war. So it shouldn't be all that surprising that Europe is having trouble turning the corner on foreign and security policy. But I do think there is a very important question that we all need to ruminate on, and that is, has the process of European integration hit its high water mark? Are we witnessing the kind of end point, or is Europe simply in a moment of self-doubt and pause, and will continue to move toward ever-closer union?

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