Style Points in Europe
President Obama has now been back from his first international tour for a week now. What did he accomplish? Was the trip a success, a failure, or something in between?
The answer, of course, was that it was a bit of both. Substantively, the President was unsuccessful in convincing the mostly European leaders gathered for the G-20 and other events to do the things he most wanted. He went hoping to convince G-20 leaders to join him in stimulating the world’s economy out of the doldrums in much the same way he is attempting to do here. He did not succeed in winning over European leaders who do not believe the answer is spending their way out of the recession, and he did not convince them that adding measurably to their debt was the answer to their problems.
He was also essentially unsuccessful in convincing NATO partners to up their support–in some cases even to sustain the levels of commitment they have already made–in Afghanistan. He wanted more NATO troops to make the operation look a little less American, and he did not get them. He did get some token pledges of economic support and the commitment of some trainers to work with the Afghan military, but when the dust settled, the muddy boots on the ground in Afghanistan are going to be even more American than they were a year ago.
Does this mean the trip was a failure? Not really. While Obama did not succeed in changing substantive policies to the degree to which he aspired, he did succeed in changing the atmosphere in which current discussions occur. In the long run, that may prove to be a more important outcome than the immediate policy failures.
The signal impression of the trip was the overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception the President got both from European leaders and especially the citizens of countries he visited. Obama is indeed the “rock star” of international politics, and citizens from London to Strausburg to Prague turned out to welcome him in a way that an American president has not been greeted in a long time. The contrast, of course, seems all the more stark in comparison to the incredibly low regard in which his predecessor was held, but nonetheless, Europeans clearly love Obama (not to mention his wife Michelle, who may have been the biggest hit of the tour; one has to go back to Raisa orbachev even to begin to emulate the impact she made).
Obama’s welcome in Europe changed the atmospherics of international relations in ways we will have to observe. At a minimum, it has made America bashing–a favorite and politically very popular activity for the last eight years–a much more risky endeavor. Attacking America means attacking Obama, and that is something that European leaders clearly will have to think carefully about in the future. Standing next to Obama as a 2009-version FOB (Friend of Barack, not Bill) clearly has some political cache.
Nowhere is this new dynamic clearer than in U.S.-French relations. In the weeks leading up to the summit, Frecnh president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel engaged in a virtual non-stop grump and grumble of opposition to the Obama economic plan, including dark warnings about what they might do to submarine the G-20 if Obama did not back down. He did, of course, moderate his demands, but this did not bring a chorus of righteous high-fives from the French and German leaders. Rather, the image that strikes me is Sarkozy standing next to Obama at Strausburg, a big smile on his face and clapping and nodding his agreement with essentially everything Obama said.
For a time, the atmosphere has changed. Obama went to Europe to charm its leaders with his knowledge and command of foreign affairs, to asure them that the United States was returning to its traditional, liberal internationalist path of global cooperation, and to talk them into support for the stimulus and Afghanistan. He succeeded on the first two counts and fell short on the third. Not too bad for a first time at bat.