Obama to Europe: Ich bin ein listener

January 21, 2009

Barack Obama’s election was greeted with jubilation in many parts of the world, raising hopes that his personal appeal will translate into progress on a range of important issues: stabilizing and reconstructing Afghanistan, countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions, resolving the global financial crisis, reaching an international climate change agreement and responding to a newly assertive Russia, among others.

On all of these issues, Europeans are essential partners. But for the past several years, attracting their support has been difficult. According to the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey, 64 percent of Europeans viewed U.S. global leadership as “desirable” in 2002, yet only 36 percent did so in 2008. Similarly, 2008 polls by reveal that 72 percent of Germans and 53 percent of Britons view America’s role in the world as mostly negative. With public opinion like this, it has been easy for European leaders to say no when the U.S. has asked for help.

Obama has an opportunity to reverse this trend. Sixty-one percent of French voters, 55 percent of Germans and 51 percent of Britons believe Obama will improve trans-Atlantic relations, according to the GMF survey. A skilled communicator, Obama has shown he can address sensitive issues with unusual grace and complexity. “He speaks like us,” declared the Swiss minister of foreign affairs. Moreover, Obama’s personal story appeals to European publics and reminds them of ideals they share with Americans.

Yet Obama’s popularity is also a potential pitfall if we allow ourselves to think that a new messenger will be enough to restore America’s global standing. Even if European leaders want to cooperate with the new administration, they must still make the case for why their citizens should shoulder new burdens in difficult times. Their success is more likely if Obama demonstrates that he is willing to listen to allies’ concerns and understands their domestic politics.

For instance, polls show that Europeans are worried about casualties in Afghanistan. Many Europeans say they want to bring their troops home. Nonetheless, the GMF survey shows that their concern is not really about whether to help stabilize Afghanistan but about using force to achieve that goal. Despite their reluctance to engage in combat, Europeans are willing to support a range of noncombat missions: providing security for economic reconstruction, halting narcotics production, and training Afghan police and military forces.

Obama will convince wary Europeans to contribute more in Afghanistan not by “selling” U.S. policy better but by persuading them that Americans and Europeans share a vision for how to make progress. To do this, he must change European perceptions that Afghanistan is an American problem and show Europeans that Americans do not see the solution in purely military terms.

In fact, American military leaders in the field already hold a much more nuanced understanding of how to stabilize and reconstruct Afghanistan. They recognize that force alone will not secure Afghanistan and, according to some reports, they do not necessarily want more European soldiers to fight alongside them. Their biggest needs are in exactly the areas Europeans would support: training of police and economic reconstruction.

Successful trans-Atlantic cooperation in Afghanistan could have broader effects. An early sign that Obama is willing to treat Europeans as respected partners, listen to their concerns and call on them to contribute in ways that reflect their political realities could make European cooperation easier on a host of other issues as well. The United States can’t always assume the burden of using military force while allies contribute to reconstruction and development, but in this case it makes sense.

Obama’s great promise is that he has the potential to make collaboration with the United States not just politically possible but politically desirable. This potential is his. Soon, it will be time to use it.