Barack Obama’s sweeping triumph in the presidential elections, including in critical battleground states, prompted a sigh of relief in numerous quarters and most capitals of Europe, where Obama, despite his emphatic orientation away from Europe, is seen as representing more closely the ethos and Weltanschauung of the old continent.
In his victory speech, which described the democratic process as often being “noisy, messy and complicated,” Obama made a token reference to the traditional American principles of self-reliance and individualism. But while he mentioned the importance of personal ambition and self-government, the President focused more closely on the notions of shared destiny and solidarity, on the concepts of family, community and nationhood, and their role in securing the future. These are values that speak loudly to European allies across the ocean, even coming from America’s first “Asian President,” as Obama famously described himself.
With emotions still running high, the focus is now shifting to the second-term agenda and the road ahead. Although the common wisdom is that Obama is liberated from the tyranny of seeking re-election, in two years’ time he will start working on behalf of his party in preparation for the next presidential elections (in which he could be repaying his debt to the Clintons). In the short run Obama is returning to a Congress whose make up will mimic closely that of his first term (a Democratic Senate and a Republican House), posing familiar challenges. He will thus have a mere two uphill years to outline his legacy.
In addition to the long list of issues facing Congress in the lame duck period this winter, including the fiscal cliff, cyber security, and trade relations with Russia, Obama will have to use this narrow window of opportunity to define the goals and priorities that will determine his legacy. In this context, aside from the daunting domestic challenges, three areas emerge as vital in the realm of foreign affairs: Iran, China and the broader Middle East. In these, the European Union, although its present standing is monopolized by bleak news and gloomy forecasts, has a role to play.
During his first term, President Obama bet a lot on the “pivot” to Asia, a strategy that not only entrenched China’s homegrown nationalism and solidified the positions of belligerents within the higher echelons, as reflected in policies towards its neighbors, but also led Beijing to retreat from the strategic engagement with the United States. The so-called “pivot” not only rests on the untenable and short-sighted notion that U.S. time, effort, attention and resources should be relocated east at the expense of other priorities; more critically, it risks putting the United States and China on a collision course that is neither inevitable nor desirable. As China’s leadership transition moves forward and the new leaders settle into power, the United States has an opportunity—namely, a two-year acclimatization period that would allow it to discreetly redefine the relationship with Beijing and raise important issues without any unnecessary fanfare.
In all this, there is an opening for European engagement, first and foremost by remaining faithful to our values. Indeed, if Europe has any chance to weigh in on China’s evolution, it will not be primarily a question of numbers but a question of principles and who gets to set the narrative. Although the Chinese tend to regard the United States as their only valid interlocutor in global affairs, Europe still matters. The European Union can be an honest broker and help prevent a strategic confrontation. The territorial conflicts involving China are one example: As a signatory to the Law of the Sea Treaty, the European Union, collaborating with Washington, should bring a much-needed legal and multilateral perspective to the issues at hand.
The quandaries of the pivot aside, U.S. elites are increasingly coming to terms with the fact that Washington cannot simply disengage from the broader Middle East and, in particular, from Iran or from the Israel-Palestine question, both of which are key to the region’s future. Today, few would remember that Obama’s rise to the presidency in 2008 was grounded on a pledge to reengage by shifting and re-thinking U.S. policy in this part of the world, culminating with a speech in Cairo that prompted a surge of optimism that was quickly dashed in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. And while President Obama’s first term in office can be best described as an attempt to steer clear of the area, the Middle East cannot be a blind spot in his second term in office.
With respect to Iran, Obama needs a solid and workable negotiating strategy rather than the tit-for-tat approach that has defined U.S. “engagement” so far. On this front, together with an active Turkey, the Europeans can be engaged to play an irreplaceable role in establishing a realistic process based on a 20 percent enrichment target as an interim benchmark on the way to a 5 percent goal (the level needed for Iran’s proclaimed civil energy use). This route should enable the West to break the financial Catch-22 that renders ineffective efforts to exert leverage over Tehran by modifying sanctions lists, and it should also create a favorable framework for addressing tough questions such as spare parts supplies (even military supplies). This, at any rate, would represent a vast improvement over the irrational and emotional discourse that surrounds such issues today.
As regards the Arab-Israeli conflict, a subject in which the President seemed particularly invested in 2008, efforts to jump-start the negotiations through George Mitchell left both parties disappointed in Washington and even the most modest of initiatives stalled. The administration’s future stance and proper response on this issue hinge, to a great extent, on the appointments to be imminently made. The task calls for the leadership of a statesman with stature, experience and savoir faire. (With Secretary Clinton leaving office, former President Clinton naturally comes to mind.) Success in refocusing this fraught historical process would surely justify the Nobel prize committee’s granting narrative.
Irrespective of the historical transcendence of the Arab-Israeli peace process, the region today is aflame in Syria. With the country in the grips of a civil war (in which, as in all civil wars, no side has a monopoly on innocence or malice), European willingness for full-blown engagement is woefully misplaced. Here, the U.S. should engage Europe, with Turkey’s aid, in the realistic goal of consolidating the opposition, bringing Qatar and Saudi Arabia closer, and establishing a collaborative dialogue with Russia and China.
If in 2008 Europeans’ hearts burst with teenage ebullience at the news of Obama’s election, today, after a sobering first term, Europeans can celebrate his triumph with an adult reason. Moving on from the shattered expectation that Obama would be “our President”, Europeans should bet and work for a mature relationship based on respect and admiration for a U.S. leader who values the full potential of the Transatlantic alliance.