The American president

Has it really been two years since Barack Obama visited Berlin?

Has it really been two years since Barack Obama visited Berlin? Indeed. At the time, I wrote an odd little rant here in which I complained that the Democratic candidate’s itinerary — London, Paris, Berlin — was a bit too close to the route mapped by the Griswold family in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. Problem: twenty-three years had elapsed, during which the Berlin Wall had fallen, Maastricht, Schengen and enlargement had transformed the European Union, and the action was in a lot of places besides the capitals Obama had heard about in high school. (I wound up suggesting an itinerary that would include Stockholm, Prague and Brussels.)

It was an easy argument to dismiss. Campaigning isn’t governing. The fickle U.S. electorate needs familiar backdrops for its photo ops. Europe doesn’t matter to America. He won, eventually, didn’t he? All true.

And yet here today, and bouncing around the European newspapers, is José Manuel Barroso complaining that the Europe-US relationship is “not living up to its potential.” The original Times piece is behind a paywall; of the alternatives, I like this one from Le Figaro which points out that twice in a year, the Europeans have run into direct challenges from Obama when they might have expected an ally: at the Copenhagen climate talks and again during the stimulus/austerity debates at the G20 in Toronto.

Europe’s insecurity with regard to Obama isn’t new. As is often the case, the early movers were from Central and Eastern Europe. A year ago 22 luminaries from the region, including Mart Laar, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, signed a plaintive letter urging the United States to “rethink its attitude toward the EU and engage it much more seriously as a strategic partner.”

There are all kinds of good reasons for an erosion of U.S.-European bonds. Both sides of the Atlantic have their own really big problems. A lot of the action in the world is elsewhere: China, Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan. And Obama may simply move to a greater period of constructive engagement with the half billion affluent capitalists of Europe at some later stage of his presidency. But so far, you’d have a hard time naming a president in the past 30 years who has had less to do with Europe, and who has gotten less accomplished along with Europe, than Obama has. The tale of the tape:

• Ronald Reagan moved quickly to increase both the risk associated with the Cold War and the reward for resolving it, engaging with Gorbachev while the U.S. Republican nomenklatura was still deeply suspicious of him, while demanding faster reform (“Tear down this wall”) and accelerating the militarization of Europe.

• George Bush helped ensure the survival of NATO, the reunification of Germany and the early stages of the market transition in the new Eastern democracies. The “two-plus-four” strategy for brokering Germany’s reunification solved a lot of technical and diplomatic challenges.

• Bill Clinton kept intervening in Europe (Good Friday peace accord in Northern Ireland, Kosovo war) and leaning on European allies (Blair, Havel) throughout his presidency.

• George W. Bush obviously had better relations with some Western European governments (Blair, Aznar) than with others (Chirac! Merkel! Oy!). But he visited Central and Eastern Europe repeatedly, obviously grateful for their (usually token) military support but also well aware that these new democracies uncomfortably close to Russia would be more constant allies for any American government than the older Western European democracies.

Obama gives signs of wanting to put relations with Europe on a higher footing. He dispatches Joe Biden, his excellent Vice President (I should probably state clearly here that I’m not being sarcastic; I like the guy) and Hillary Clinton, his excellent SecState (ditto) to both Old and New Europe. But especially in this hands-on administration, if the president isn’t paying attention to a file, it’s really not getting paid attention to.

Way back in 2007, Joe Conason, a newspaper columnist who has been rather spectacularly in the tank for the Clintons for 20 years, tried to use Obama’s lackadaisical chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee’s subcommittee for Europe — the Senate group had held no policy hearings all year, and the candidate’s first-hand knowledge of Europe was in no way superior to Stephen Harper’s pre-2006 — as a stick to beat Obama with to Hillary Clinton’s benefit. It didn’t work, of course. Europe really doesn’t matter to U.S. electoral politics on most days. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter to U.S. strategic interests, and it doesn’t mean Conason didn’t have a point.