The New Old World

Obama is unwise to ignore Europe—especially as a strengthened EU develops a common foreign policy.

Over four million workers are now unemployed in Spain. Greece is going bankrupt. So is Portugal.

Doesn't Europe have anything better to worry about than whether or not President Obama touches down in Madrid for a scheduled American-European Union meeting in May?

Apparently not.

The Europeans, the Spanish above all, have their collective knickers in a twist over what's being depicted as a snub to the European Union by the Obama administration. Everything was supposed to be better after the dreaded George W. Bush had departed office. Obama, a hero in Europe, is supposed to restore jangled nerves on the Continent, making it clear that Old Europe is just as dear to him as New Europe. Now the Spanish are feeling a little like a bride jilted at the altar. America may have gotten over its love affair with Obama, but the Europeans are always a little slow to get the message.

But Obama's disinclination to show for a photo-op isn't so much a snub as a concession to reality. The Europeans have made a hash of their attempt to construct a common foreign policy. Herman Van Rompuy, the new president of the European Council, and his counterpart Baroness Catherine Ashton, the European foreign-policy head, have not exactly distinguished themselves with laurels. Ashton in particular, as the Financial Times recently reported, has been showing up for meetings and apologizing for her lack of grasp of foreign-policy issues.

It's also the case that Obama is simply overwhelmed by both a welter of foreign and domestic issues. It seems safe to say that his Nobel Prize speech got him enough face-time in Europe to last for a while on the home front. The last thing he needs is to be seen yukking it up with fawning European admirers in Madrid, while unemployment hovers around 10 percent in America.

Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon has been saying that Obama's reluctance to show up in Madrid is no big deal. Well, maybe. But it does suggest that Gordon himself may not be as influential as his predecessors, not through any fault of his own, but merely because Obama attaches less importance to Europe. If that is the case, it would be agony for European leaders. It would suggest that Bush did not capriciously antagonize Europe, but was responding to a more fundamental change in relations between the New and Old world.

Still, to underestimate Europe in the aftermath of the Lisbon treaty would be a mistake. Europe is experiencing growing pains, but probably no more than that. At a stimulating conference I attended on Monday that was held in Brussels by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, the ins and outs of the Lisbon treaty were closely discussed. The treaty envisions a far more active-and united-Europe in foreign and military policy. Whether it will really result in another balancing power to America, as China hopes, may be doubted. But it leaves no doubts about where Europe intends to head.

With America facing crushing military burdens abroad and a staggering federal budget deficit, it is hardly in a position to spurn Europe's help. Quite the contrary. In coming years, Obama will need Europe as much as it needs him.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.