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Ask Not What Europe Can Do for You

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
April 1, 2009
Foreign Policy

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Barack Obama is in Europe this week, for meetings in which America's allies are likely to tell him that they can't contribute much more to the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, and don't want to re-float the world economy through government deficits. He shouldn't take it personally. And we shouldn't treat it as the end of the story.

For half a century and more, in good times and bad, European leaders have advised new American presidents not to bother them with big, risky, expensive Washington ideas. They almost always prefer the status quo -- or, at most, very incremental change. But, having said their piece, they then usually come around. (Sometimes -- very rarely, it has to be said -- they're right to begin with.)

Obama's four immediate predecessors all had deep disagreements with major European allies early in their presidency. George W. Bush's feud with Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac over Iraq was only the most recent of these. Bill Clinton came to office wanting a more activist approach to contain ethnic warfare in the Balkans, but couldn't sell the idea in Europe and had to back off. Two years later, ironically, it was Chirac's taunt -- "the position of leader of the free world is vacant" -- that helped to reignite Clinton's determination to stop the killing.

On his own first European trip George H.W. Bush urged NATO leaders to counter Mikhail Gorbachev's "peace-offensive" with bold proposals to overcome the division of Europe and reunify Germany.

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