New politics, old Europe

Barack Obama will close out July with a credential-burnishing trip abroad, landing in London, Paris and Berlin before heading briefly to the Middle East and back home. One presumes that in those capitals unlike in Ottawa, world leaders and prominent opposition figures will not contrive to be out of town when the candidate arrives. (If John McCain manages to win this thing, do you suppose he’ll have a choice word or two when the prime minister calls him in November looking for a meeting? But I digress.)

Roger Cohen offers a suggested draft of Obama’s big Berlin speech, to be delivered near the spot where Kennedy and Reagan spoke. Frankly Obama shouldn’t have much trouble beating Roger’s wordcraft. But what I’m left wondering is why Obama is only visiting capitals where Kennedy and Reagan were familiar visitors. He’s supposed to be a with-it fellow; has nobody told him Europe has changed?

At a minimum, Obama should speak a few metres east of the Brandenburg Gate, not on the western side as Reagan and Kennedy had to do. There used to be a wall in the way, and it’s gone now, and it would be good to acknowledge that. But then if he did, Europeans might wonder why his diplomacy stops just past the Wall even if Europe no longer does. Certainly his host Angela Merkel, who grew up in the former Communist East, knows better.

I don’t want to play backseat tour organizer too enthusiastically. Obama’s European trip is designed to serve the same purpose as Chevy Chase’s earlier trip to the same capitals: to provide evocative backdrops for familiar shtick that an audience back home will recognize. And there’s a case to be made for each of his destinations. Britain is the main non-American contributor to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Germany has the Brandenburg Gate and all that irresistable Kennedy-Reagan mojo (expect Obama to mention the second, as well as the first, because by the end of the month he’s going to seriously need to rebuild his bipartisan credibility). And France is… between Britain and Germany.

But most of the European countries in Iraq and Afghanistan are in Central and Eastern Europe. George W. Bush acknowledged that by spending most of his time in those countries every time he visited Europe. But those countries have paid a heavy burden for their post-9/11 solidarity with an administration they found they could not trust to make sound military or political decisions. And they have, uniformly, felt let down by the almost imperceptible rewards bestowed on them by Bush for their considerable trouble. (That’s why the Harper government’s decision to lift visa restrictions on visitors from those countries is so politically powerful in expat communities in Canada: because it’s the sort of good-neighbourly gesture the Bush administration has refused to make despite his debt of gratitude.)

So Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs, Balts and others are feeling let down after their early crush on Bush. They look, in other words, for all the world like swing voters in the U.S. And they hold at least a blocking veto on any EU action for the foreseeable future. Which is why Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, and not just Bush, spend so much time in those countries

There is another New Europe that Obama will also ignore on this trip. Scandinavian countries have done far better than their southern neighbours at combining green virtue with economic growth that depends on ingenuity and innovation, more than on natural resource wealth. They look, in short, like examples for the kind of economy Obama wants to build.

Finally, Europeans are always mystified when a foreign leader visits Europe and ignores “Europe,” the way most continentals understand it: as the European Union, which sets the rules for half of the “domestic” legislation every member state’s parliament passes. Probably it would be too much to ask an aspiring President to visit Brussels, even though every President winds up sending several of his cabinet secretaries there several times a year. But there’s another possibility.

The Czech Republic and Sweden will hold the rotating presidency of the European Union for six months each in 2009. So by skipping one of his three Old Europe destinations and visiting Prague and Stockholm instead, Obama could have escaped the leaden conventionalism that has lately weighed down his campaign; demonstrated that being forward-looking is not merely a rhetorical device, it is sometimes a matter of looking forward; and he could have signalled to a half-billion Europeans that he will be a different kind of President, by recognizing that Europe is not the same place it was when John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Chevy Chase roamed its precincts.