John McCain may have called candidate Barack Obama the biggest celebrity in the world, but the place that has held the U.S. president closest to its collective heart has always been Europe. When he took to the stage in Berlin on July 24, 2008, a crowd of 200,000 Germans abandoned their usual reserve to flood screaming and cheering into the Tiergarten.
They came to see an aspiring American president give flesh to all of Europe’s fantasies about American leadership: multiethnic and multilateral; pragmatic and peacefully minded; social democratic in his goals and so eloquent in their expression. Obama promised to purge the sins of George W. Bush and give new impetus to the alliance for a new century. “America has no better partner than Europe” he said.
The paradox is that while Obama successfully healed the trans-Atlantic rift, he may also be the American president who presided over the end of the West as a political community.
Four years on from Berlin, Obama would still trade his approval ratings in any European country with those in his native United States. In June, the Pew Global Attitudes Survey showed that nine out of 10 voters in France (92 percent) and Germany (89 percent) would like to see him reelected, as would large majorities in Britain (73 percent), Spain (71 percent), Italy (69 percent) and the Czech Republic (67 percent). And at a tactical level, Europeans and Americans are cooperating more closely — on a range of issues from Iran to Syria — than they have for many years. Even when they disagree, they do so with civility and a surprising absence of rancor.
But Obama’s stellar personal ratings in Europe hide the fact that the Western alliance has never loomed smaller in the imagination of policymakers on either side of the Atlantic.
Seen from Washington, there is not a single problem in the world to be looked at primarily through a trans-Atlantic prism. Although the administration looks first to Europeans as partners in any of its global endeavors — from dealing with Iran’s nuclear program to stopping genocide in Syria — it no longer sees the European theater as its core problem or seeks a partnership of equals with Europeans. It was not until the eurozone looked like it might collapse — threatening to bring down the global economy and with it Obama’s chances of reelection — that the president became truly interested in Europe.
Conversely, Europeans have never cared less about what the United States thinks. Germany, traditionally among the most Atlanticist of European countries, has led the pack. Many German foreign-policy makers think it was simply a tactical error for Berlin to line up with Moscow and Beijing against Washington on Libya. But there is nothing accidental about the way Berlin has systematically refused even to engage with American concerns over German policy on the euro.
During the Bush years, Europeans who were unable to influence the strategy of the White House would give a running commentary on American actions in lieu of a substantive policy. They had no influence in Washington, so they complained. But now, the tables are turned, with Obama passing continual judgment on German policy while Chancellor Angela Merkel stoically refuses to heed his advice. Europeans who for many years were infantilized by the trans-Atlantic alliance, either using sycophancy and self-delusion about a “special relationship” to advance their goals or, in the case of Jacques Chirac’s France, pursuing the even more futile goal of balancing American power, have finally come to realize that they can no longer outsource their security or their prosperity to Uncle Sam.