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Send in the Aussies
by Ken Feltman
Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism.
- Mary McCarthy
Now they've done it - again! British Prime Minister Gordon Brown appeared to support Barack Obama in an article that bore his name. The PM heaped praise on Obama and Democrats for "generating the ideas to help people through more difficult times."
The British Embassy in Washington rushed to tell the McCain-Palin campaign and news outlets that the true author of the article is a low level Labour Party official. The PM may not have read the article published in his name, they claim. But the harm is done, and in this case it is Obama who will suffer.
French publications carry news of a poll showing that 80 percent of the French want Obama. Only eight percent prefer McCain. A poll in Russia shows that Russians who will answer prefer Obama by better than four to one. A BBC survey of voters in 22 countries shows a wide preference for Obama. A German Marshall Fund study reports overwhelming support for Obama, country by country. As American voters absorb this, it helps the Republicans.
Europeans are viewed by many Americans as weak and indecisive in the face of aggression. So they would be expected to support the "weaker" U.S. candidate, right? Realistically, it is not so simple. But Brown's misstep is part of a long pattern, in both Europe and the United States, that widens the Atlantic. Certainly, President Bush has had a lot to do with that widening.
Support for Obama among U.S. voters seemed to crest shortly after he spoke in Berlin. Focus groups picked up the reaction immediately. Many voters who place importance on national security believed that the Germans flocked to cheer Obama because he is like them: Soft on fanatics and bullies. Again, the reality is not so simple. But the reality is no less troubling.
Americans were fascinated with the reaction of Europeans to Obama. But while most Americans were studying how Obama was performing, what he was saying and how he was being received, I was paying more attention to what the Europeans were saying – and what they were not saying. What the Europeans were not saying, in Berlin and in news accounts across Europe, is the most important thing to come from the Obama trip.
Europe flexed its muscles in the early 1990s and challenged the United States both politically and economically. The long recovery from two great wars was over. Strong democracies had replaced imperial governments. People had money in their pockets. Things were good and getting better.
A Eurocrat remarked proudly that "this is the hour of Europe." He seemed to be saying that in the post-Cold War world, Europeans would settle the coming conflicts touching Europe. Then came Bosnia and European paralysis set in. Europe could not muster the will or the way to intervene and save thousands of lives. Europe talked a good game, including telling the U.S. to stay out, but Europe could not act. NATO and the U.S. intervened. The Balkan conflicts were sorted out in a messy way that leaves still more sorting out to be done.
As a result, European influence in Washington declined at the same time that American influence in Europe waned. By the time George W. Bush became president, many Americans had already dismissed Europe as a noisy but toothless tiger. As far as those Americans were concerned, the sands of Europe's hour were slipping through the hourglass.
What's happening? Have two great centers of Democratic governments, Europe and the U.S., become estranged because one is unable to act while the other seems always ready to act, and often overreact?
Another chance at leadership
More grains of sand remain for Europe. After the Bosnian failure, Europe now will get another chance. In dealing with Europe, the Bush administration has done just about everything wrong. Bush will leave a huge void in trans-Atlantic trust and leadership. Europe could fill the void. But Europe gives no signs of being able to lead. Just when a new Obama or McCain administration will be looking everywhere for ideas, help and leadership, Europe again may be unready.
Never has "the hour of Europe" been so close. The new American president will have to listen - and welcome - Europe's constructive suggestions and ideas on virtually any issue the Europeans choose. Clearly, the new president will be hoping for cooperative ideas, but not the scolding criticisms-without-suggestions that have characterized Europe's diplomacy with the U.S. recently. Can Europe rise to the occasion?
A friend who is part of the Sarkozy government in France laughs when he says that Europeans find it too comfortable to criticize the U.S. Why give that up for the hard work of developing and advancing constructive ideas? When Americans hear and read such sentiments, they wonder: Are those words rooted in the attitudes noted by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he used the term "Old Europe?"
If this could be the hour of Europe - but the Europeans cannot seize the moment - expect some Americans to draw the wrong conclusions. Those Americans may assume (like Bush and Rumsfeld) that Europe is feckless.
Last month's article on the Russia-Georgia conflict drew scorching criticism.
First, many readers (some Americans and mostly Eastern Europeans) objected to the idea that Georgian President Micheil Saakashvili had precipitated the fighting. They saw Russian aggression as the basic cause. A typical comment (from the U.S.): "If Russian forces had not been on Georgian land, there would have been no reason for Georgia to attempt to push them out."
Western Europeans were more likely to blame Georgia and the United States. An especially bitter comment from Ireland: "This silly American attempt to prop up a dysfunctional state gives Russia another reason to retaliate against Europe."
Many objected to what they perceived as negative comments about Saakashvili. "He is leading a small nation against a brutal bully," a Hungarian wrote.
A Georgian had a poignant view: "He is making some mistakes. He is imperfect as a person and a president. We are new at democracy and not quite right about it yet. He is the best we have now. This is the best we are now. Help us to be better."
What Americans may not understand is that Europe's inability to lead is not due to fear of the consequences of leadership, as some in the U.S. imply. The problem is structural. Like the original U.S. Articles of Confederation adopted after independence, Europe's governing structure is too weak to permit anything but near-unanimous consensus leadership. With a continent as diverse and changing as Europe, consensus is unlikely and infrequent.
Last month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, acting because France currently holds the European presidency, brokered a deal between Russia and Georgia. I am told by a usually reliable source in Germany that although Sarkozy's effort was successful, the German government let him know that his style lacked the "caution that Europe must use in a complex world."
"Germany does not wish to be bound by actions taken without proper consultation and agreement," my German friend said. If one European state will find fault with another European state's successful diplomacy, how can Europe find consensus? Observing this, many Americans see no helpfulness and only negativism from bickering Europe. It does seem to many Americans that all Europeans can do is nag.
Perhaps in dealing with the U.S. the Europeans should listen to the surprising candor of a U.S. State Department veteran on the differing approaches of New Zealand and Australia: "No matter who is in charge, the New Zealanders always tell us what they don't like. The Australians always start with where we agree and suggest ways to improve things. So it's only natural that we'd rather sit down with the Aussies."
Listening to silence
The inauguration of a new American president will be an opportunity for European influence. What will that influence be? To see where Europe may be headed, we need to listen to the people as well as the politicians. In this case, we may be listening to the same silence that greeted Obama.
McCain benefits from Palin
Sarah Palin has shaken up the political structure simply by being chosen. Although it is too early to be sure, focus groups seem to be telling us that older white women and blue-collar men like the idea of someone who is "just a hard working mom."
Married voters of all catagories have inched away from Obama but many have not yet switched to McCain. They are now "undecided."
An Obama campaign strategist tells me that this will all settle down and Obama will recapture those voters. If Obama fails, he is in trouble. Even if he succeeds, this will be another close election.
A careful reading of the accounts of Obama's Berlin speech makes it clear that Obama drew enthusiastic and frequent applause - until he referred to European participation in solving some American (and world) problems: "America can't do this alone." "The Afghan people need our troops and your troops." "We can join in a new and global partnership." Silence greeted these statements.
Politicians have a way of trying to give voice to silence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed "the limits" of Germany's contributions to the Afghan cause, making it clear she did not favor further commitments. Next, a high-level Merkel ally said that Germany "will also have trouble meeting the demand to assume more common responsibility."
The German ambivalence is understandable. It reflects the feelings of German voters and of Europeans in other countries as well. Beside, Obama is merely a candidate. Better for the German political leaders to wait to see what happens in November. Still, the Germans who crowded together to listen to Obama withheld their applause for another reason: They do not see the American presidential election as an opportunity to propose change to Washington. Just getting rid of Bush seems to be enough. Germany's political leaders, however, should be able to see more. Sadly, however, Merkel's quick discussion of "limits" shows that her government may not understand the opportunity presented, no matter which candidate replaces Bush.
Bush's "Old Europe" diplomacy alienated many Europeans, but it could turn out to be a gift to Europe's politicians. That gift will require a change by most European leaders. They have been able to blame America for a host of domestic problems - especially the rise of militant Islam within Europe. Now who will they blame? That question got a flip answer when I asked two political reporters - one Italian and the other British. The Italian said that politicians in Italy will blame the EU bureaucrats in Brussels. The British reporter said simply: "Each other." Then, as he reflected, he said: "And you Americans."
How ironic that a weakened Washington may finally be receptive but Europe still may not be ready. The new American president will need to understand, better than President Bush understood, that Europe simply cannot make certain decisions. Europe has structural issues to resolve. Europe cannot commit to some actions. Do not assume that the reasons are rooted in anti-Americanism. Perhaps the time will come when Europe will be able to assume leadership. But until then, U.S. leaders should not ask nor expect more than Europe can currently give. Plan accordingly.
For their part, European leaders should not pretend to be capable of decisive actions when they are not willing or able to follow through. European political leaders need to realize that Europe again may pass up an opportunity to influence U.S. policy, and that they claimed that they wanted this opportunity. Perhaps it is time for Europe to resolve the structural problems and stop blaming Uncle Sam. If these measures fail, there is another possibility.
Send in the Aussies.
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