December 2009 | Jose Maria de Areilza, Dean IE Law School
Obamaâ??s success opens a window of opportunities for Europe, but it also brings challenges as we find out how capable the old continent is of performing alongside its US partner.
Barack ObamaÂ´s election to the presidency of the USA may be a defining moment not only for his country but also for the international projection of the European Union and its member states. The transformational figure of the President-elect, to use a term coined by Colin Powell, will have two immediate effects on the watered-down relations between Europe and the USA. On the one hand, eight difficult years of tension and division, especially in the area of politics and the military, are now wiped off the board; on the other, the economic interdependence of the transatlantic community has not stopped growing, as shown by the financial crisis itself. The new White House will no longer classify Europeans into new and old and certain Europeans will have no reason at all for defining themselves as anti-Americans. Those who spread the word of anti-Americanism have suddenly been left behind and, for a few months at least, we will not have to listen to a choir of European politicians preaching to the USA on how to do things better from a the moral high ground, but incapable of practising what they preach.
As the best observers explain, we are witnessing the greatest public relations coup in the history of the USA and the best example of a hegemonic countryâ??s instant recovery of legitimacy or Â´soft powerÂ´ ever seen. Barack Obama symbolises a new generation, a new way of doing politics based more on stories and emotions than on ideologies and parties; he also embodies an aspiration to global citizenship. His election not only breaks down racial barriers, but also makes his country and the American dream attractive again all over the world, something that is the opposite of what the Bush administration achieved during its eight years in power. It is true that the new president awakens such expectations on our continent that he will undoubtedly be unable to fulfil them, first of all because in many areas of security and foreign policy, the USA policy that has been in place since the fall of the Berlin Wall will continue. Indeed, the USA will continue to look towards the Pacific and pay less attention to a Europe that is less relevant in the current reconfiguration of world power. However, with the election of Barack Obama, the notion of the West begins to be more appealing, not only on both sides of the Atlantic.The second effect of this election on relations between the USA and Europe is the appearance of a window of opportunity for a number of months, at most a year, for Europeans to decide to be global players at our North American partnerâ??s side, a true challenge for the capacity of European leaders and EU institutions. If political leaders get their act together, we will be able to progress using the means we have at present, despite the fact that the Lisbon Treaty, which contains substantial improvements foreign and security law has yet to come into effect. The urgency is real: transatlantic relations will immediately enter a decisive phase in which Europeans must be capable of team work to offer an agenda of intense cooperation with the USA on a number of matters of mutual interest, at least if we want to remain a part of the new world map with the emergence of new powers and new global challenges.
Unlike John McCain, Barack Obama does not belong to the Cold-War generation, he has no strong personal bonds with Europe or in-depth knowledge of international relations, unlike his running mate Joe Biden.
However, during the last year and a half, the President-elect has matured as a politician and made a clear move over to the centre. This process has led him to confirm the USAÂ´s interests in the world and show much more determination in issues related to security and defence. His vision of Europe will be very pragmatic, beyond much needed symbols of reconciliation and a fundamental improvement in communication with European countries and the Union. Above all, Barack Obama inherits a country that is involved in two wars whose outcomes are uncertain, difficult relations with Russia and Iran, an economy in recession and an unprecedented financial and economic crisis. He faces a public opinion that is concerned with the economy but ready to award him a period of grace. Furthermore, all the indicators suggest that he is willing to surround himself with the countryÂ´s best, like the eggheads that surrounded John F. Kennedy. Barack Obama is even recruiting the best advisers and collaborators beyond the party system.
From his European partners, also affected by the economic and financial crisis, the future president will look for two immediate contributions in the reform of the world financial system and the war of Afghanistan. The rules and institutions that regulate and supervise the capital markets need to be greatly renovated and nobody is sure what the form of the new model should be. However, there is a consensus on the need for it to be considered jointly from a more global standpoint than at present. In relation to Afghanistan, Obama made it clear during his campaign that victory in this conflict is a priority and will therefore ask certain European states for a greater, more effective contribution, something that will undoubtedly create a dilemma for the Spanish government. In this area of security, the United States will continue to deal with each European country individually in order to form ad hoc coalitions, although NATO will keep its high symbolic value and continues to operate as a forum for discussion and joint planning. As Europeans, we need to increase the security agenda that has dominated conversations between both sides of the Atlantic for decades and include specific proposals to, for example, progress towards the Doha Round (ObamaÂ´s protectionist stance of his campaign will probably be a lot milder now) or to fight together against the effects of the climatic change. It is not only a question of fostering cooperation on a political scale. A great number of expert communities and networks have been formed between both sides of the Atlantic (and I see this on a daily basis), working very competitively to solve the problems that people, companies and institutions face through the research, diffusion and development of best practices.
In short, the renovation of the US presidency puts Europeans at the helm of their global responsibilities. The challenge is to draw up a joint transatlantic agenda and work with President Obama after January. Europe needs to propose, persuade and be capable of acting in conjunction with its North American partner and with a good measure of realism and self-criticism, give the world the best contributions its spirit can offer.