Europolitics

Over Time, Obama Has Come to Appreciate Europe

Editor's note: In a wide-ranging interview with Europolitics, Fiona Hill assesses the developments in the European-American relationship during President Obama’s first term and looks forward to the changes that may come in his second term.

Europolitics: Have Europeans’ high expectations of Obama when first elected in 2008 been met?

Fiona Hill: The biggest expectation about him was that he was going to go back to multilateralism and working through the United Nations, as opposed to the ‘coalitions of the willing’ or the ‘you’re either with us or against’ mantra of his predecessor, George W Bush. He did do quite a good job at repairing alliances on the symbolic level, but there wasn’t a lot of real substance in Obama’s multilateralism and that’s where people have been disappointed.

Europolitics: What has been their biggest disappointment?

Hill: Firstly, the Middle East peace process. There was an expectation that Obama would step up to the plate and do something differently. But his strategy for bringing the two sides to the negotiating table didn’t work. Several things happened to prevent that, which were not the fault of the Obama administration, such as the blow-up of Israeli-Turkish relations and the Arab spring. Obviously, Obama’s personal relationship with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has been flawed. The second thing has been climate change. When he came to office, Obama was acknowledging that climate change was a problem. But the expectations that there would be major legislation in the US were thrown out the window early on because he decided instead to champion health care legislation.

Europolitics: Where has he been most successful in repairing relations with the EU?

Hill: At the end of the Bush administration the relationship was not that bad. Between the first and second Bush administrations we had moved away from this divisive talk about old and new Europe and Bush was paying a lot more attention to the transatlantic relationship. There was a lot of criticism at first of the Obama administration that it was paying less attention to Europe. Since then, the administration – in particular Hillary Clinton – has paid a lot of attention through the frequency of her trips, her embrace of Catherine Ashton and the very good relationships she has established with other leaders. One area where there has been change has been hitting the reset button in relations with Russia. Europeans had had a sense of discomfort at the way US-Russian relations had deteriorated [under Bush]. While there was concern among East Europeans, especially Poles, that the reset button policy was against them, Obama has managed to dispel those concerns.

Europolitics: What can we expect from the second Obama presidency?

Hill: More of the same. His nominations for State and Defence, [John] Kerry and [Chuck] Hagel, are confirmed transatlanticists and are likely to continue the same approach that Hillary Clinton had. In some respects, they are even more pro-European. For example, Hagel has been chair of the Atlantic Council. As for Kerry, there were all those jokes about him speaking French when he was a presidential candidate, but actually that’s a very good asset for an international diplomat. But it will still be Obama who will set the tone.

Europolitics: What is the single biggest thing Obama could do to promote the relationship?

Hill: Prioritising the transatlantic free trade agreement. Kerry could be the type of person who could carry this forward because a lot of it will have to do with relations on Capitol Hill and he is steeped in that background. Vice-President Biden could help too. Given that lack of progress on other issues – climate and the Middle East – if Obama could deliver on the free trade agreement, it could have a concrete impact at a time of economic crisis. Trade is the one area where we really still do have a good relationship.

Europolitics: Where does the danger lie for drift or deterioration?

Hill: If the US starts to get bogged down in Asia by getting embroiled in territorial disputes going on in the South China Sea. If the US’ new focus on Asia becomes less visionary and more mundane, it could become as mired in Asia as it currently is in the Middle East. Then there would be a real danger of deterioration because the relationship with Europe needs cultivating, needs a new focus and expression. The old alliance of NATO is not sufficient to describe where the US and EU are together.

Europolitics: Does Obama really care about the EU?

Hill: When he came into office, ‘fixing Europe’ was not his agenda. He was paying more attention to the rise of Asia. But over time, he has come to appreciate Europe. For example, he really appreciates the EU’s role in Iran where the stepped-up European sanctions have arguably been more effective than American ones. It wasn’t all that long ago that there was a great deal of fear in the US at the prospect of a United States of Europe. That seems so far-fetched now. The US views the EU as an asset and is concerned about the prospect of the EU’s disappearance. We see this in the recent statement by [Assistant Secretary of State] Phil Gordon that the US wants to see the UK stay within Europe. So Obama does care now about what happens to the European Union.