Europe After Five Months of the Obama Administration: Central and Sidelined

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

June 4, 2009

In the morning of April 11, 1945, my grandfather heard American artillery around the concentration camp of Buchenwald, and the last SS officers guarding the camp suddenly disappeared. He had been arrested two years earlier by the Klaus Barbie’s Gestapo in Lyon for spying on the German military as part of a French resistance group. He was brutally interrogated and deported to Buchenwald in horrific conditions. The next day, April 12, the 80th Infantry Division of Patton’s Third Army took control of the camp, effectively liberating my grandfather. Charlie Payne—Barack Obama’s great uncle—took part in the liberation of Buchenwald, although his effort came a week earlier at a Buchenwald subcamp (Ohrdruf). If President Obama has personal reasons to honor this liberation, I have even more direct reasons to be thankful to Payne and his comrades.

The visits that the president will pay to Buchenwald on June 5, and then the next day to the Normandy beaches where allied troops landed on D-Day to liberate Europe, will be heavy in symbolism. They will remind us of the deep historical and political roots of the transatlantic alliance, forged in the brutal wars of the 20th century. They will also remind us of the path travelled by Europe since the dark days of Nazism and fascism—a difficult path of engagement, reconciliation and forgiveness that has no equivalent in history, and a path where America played a crucial supporting role. Indeed, despite the three German invasions (1870, 1914 and 1940) that destroyed his family home in Eastern France and his ordeal at Buchenwald, my grandfather was able to overcome ancient hatreds and stereotypes to actively cooperate with the Germans, including as a member of the NATO parliamentary assembly in the 1960s.

Obama’s visit to France and Germany isn’t only about commemorating the past, though. It is also about devising common policies to deal with today’s challenges. In this regard, Europe finds itself in a paradoxical situation. It is central on the global map of American economic and geopolitical interests, but at the same time—precisely because it found its way to peace and prosperity—it is somewhat secondary in the hierarchy of Washington’s concerns.

Three features of the current issues highlight this paradox. First, as the Obama administration is starting to implement new policies on various issues like Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Europe is forced to take a back seat, watching from the sidelines—not without anxiety sometimes.

Second, some of these policies, like addressing climate change, require domestic consensus. And while the European Union has been a global leader in this field, the action is now on Capitol Hill, not in the international arena. The same could be said about the relocation of Guantanamo prisoners, where Europe can help, but only after Americans have reached a working consensus.

Last, Europeans and Americans have different perceptions of current political priorities. And while European help has been very important on the number one issue for Barack Obama—Afghanistan-Pakistan—the recent surge of American troops (and to a lesser extent civilian capacity) necessarily leads to a weakening of European importance.

In other words, Europe appears both central to American interests and somewhat sidelined in the current diplomatic context. There is no doubt that the heavy re-engagement undertaken by the Obama administration—with three European trips for the president in his first six months and four for the vice president—has created a much more congenial transatlantic climate. But it has not led to a new centrality of the Old Continent. Maybe that is for the better. After all, the places that make the headlines in Washington, DC are rarely peaceful or cooperative. Just remember April 1945.