By Eberhard Sandschneider
There are growing differences in the way the trans-Atlantic partners assess each other. While Europe has embraced Barack Obama as an "American European," America is looking for strategic partners in other corners of the globe. If Europe wants to be taken seriously, it must decide to become a meaningful actor.
All crises come to an end, and the current economic crisis is no exception. We do not know when that point will be reached, but one thing is already clear: What began as a real estate and financial collapse in the United States has evolved into a global economic crisis of mammoth proportions. By the time it ends, it will have destroyed both book values and real assets on an enormous scale. What is less certain is how the structure of international politics will have changed. We are experiencing an abrupt upheaval in politics, and we are seeing once again that real, fundamental change is only driven by profound crises.
Faced with these problems, the world has exaggeratedly high expectations of the new American president, Barack Obama. They are founded on his campaign of hope and the desire for a leader other than George W. Bush. In Europe, these expectations also reflect an idealistic European view of multilateral American foreign policy. Despite the depth of the crisis, America's new spirit of optimism is genuine, and Europeans have become easily infected. The overwhelming majority would have cast their vote for Obama. Yet Obama is the president of America, not of Europe. Europeans all too easily overlooked the warning signs that Obama issued during his campaign, and they have also failed to recognize his extremely limited capacity to act both politically and financially. Only slowly have a growing number of Europeans realized that the new US president will not be able to perform the miracles that are not only expected of him, but necessary to ensure America's uncontested role as a world leader in the foreseeable future.
Like Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 1930s, the new president will require a New Deal or a "Grand Bargain," as it is called in Washington. No one expects Obama to solve the world's problems overnight, and many are advising him to employ one of Dwight D. Eisenhower's old strategies: If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it! And that can only mean that America will attempt to secure both leadership and control of the movement that is trying to replace the international system that the United States previously dominated. The United States has always managed to successfully extricate itself from economic and political crises, and in most cases it has done so better than its rivals. It most definitely possesses the functioning institutional framework that is necessary for quick, efficient, and far-reaching measures. This applies only to a limited extent to those countries that are competing with America over the redistribution of global power.
A Weakened Europe
The actual tragedy is taking place in Europe. One need not succumb to the regularly returning Euro-skepticism to come to the sober conclusion that Europe is overextended, that it has no clear decision-making structures, that it is unable to build political consensus or act on basic issues of global policy. European shortcomings threaten to marginalize the region. Hectic activity at summits and the juggling of billions of euros in economic stimulus may create the illusion of operational capability, but they cannot take the place of consolidated and coordinated policy. And even if it seems important to the Europeans themselves that they finally ratify the Treaty of Lisbon, the rest of the world could not care less and is hardly waiting with bated breath for Europeans to get their act together.
Obama's taking office has stirred new hope in Europe, but basic differences in trans-Atlantic interests persist. The new administration may have less interest than the last in an overextended Europe that has weak decision-making powers, but this fact alone will not make Europe strong. Expecting too much of the United States is the wrong strategy at the moment, yet it apparently seems preferable to attempting to transform the European Union into an entity that is capable of looking after its own interests. The European Union still has not defined its position in many relevant areas of global risk policy, and the consequences are as simple as they are dangerous: by restricting itself to verbose symbolism the European Union is being taken less and less seriously in the world. The rest of the world may trade with Europe, but they have stopped listening to Europe's political haranguing.
The trans-Atlantic alliance is no longer a given. During the Cold War, Europeans and Americans were joined together by a common threat and the protective shield that the United States held over Europe. But the stopgap solutions under ex-President Bush and simple "Obamania" can hardly provide a sustainable basis for successful joint action. Blaming Bush for everything will not work for long, and we seem unable to get it into our heads that the United States is no longer the "European power" that it was during the Cold War. America's strategic interests now lie in the Pacific, the Middle East, and South Asia. We should naturally be delighted that we are no longer the focal point of global tensions, but it is precisely for this reason that we no longer have any excuse for not recognizing and responding to the new tectonics of world power.
Rethinking the Trans-Atlantic Relationship
A radical rethinking of trans-Atlantic relations is required. We have all heard plenty of idealistic sound bites about "shared values." The invocation of shared values rings hollow if it does not result in politically implementable joint goals. Everyone knows that "only united are we strong," but such pronouncements have little to do with the reality of divergent trans-Atlantic interests.
It is time for an honest and realistic assessment of trans-Atlantic relations. Cordialities between top politicians no longer suffice to cover up the widening gap in interests. When Europeans look toward the United States, they prefer to see the America of the New England states, home to the open-minded cosmopolitan elite whom they encounter in New York City, Washington, and Boston. In reality, of course, America's diversity spreads far beyond the East Coast. West Coast Americans see the world through transpacific and Hispanic eyes, and the vast heartland in between clings to fundamentalist values and a parochial way of thinking, at least in our European view.
Any country that wants to be taken seriously by the United States and valued as a reliable partner must be willing and able to do more than invoke a glorious past and common values. It must be prepared to deliver. Europe is not yet ready to do this. The result will inevitably be joint disappointment and the next trans-Atlantic hangover. But the current crisis should at least help the Europeans realize that they face the immediate danger of marginalization in the future global order if they do not shift course. Europe has not yet awoken from a twenty-year Rip van Winkle sleep. If it wants to avoid a rude awakening, it -- and particularly Germany -- must act.
Germany as a Global Player
The first crucial step is to make the political elite and the general public more conscious of one simple fact: ever since reunification, Germany has evolved from an importer to an exporter of security. Until 1989, Germany's security could only be secured by the presence of US troops, by NATO, and the Western alliance. Today, this basic principle of German foreign policy has been turned on its head. German soldiers are involved in military operations in Afghanistan; they are helping stabilize the Balkans; they patrol off the coast of Israel; and they are fighting pirates on the Horn of Africa. The process has been subtle and cautious but now, twenty years after reunification, the results are plain to see: Germany provides security to the regions of the world that have become strategically important because of globalization.
One cannot dismiss the possibility that the United States will emerge from the present crisis as strong as ever. As for Europe, there are less grounds for optimism, other than the hope that severe crises always create a political dynamic promoting real change. The Europeans themselves have the power to decide whether Europe will become one of the key poles in a multipolar world order.
As a result, there can be but one rallying cry: Stop turning to others with expectations, stop the moaning and groaning. It is time to act and determine what we want to do instead of passing the buck.
Eberhard Sandschneider is the Otto-Wolff Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
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