Thank You, President Obama

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

February 5, 2010

If only there could be many more snubs like that. On Monday, a leak from the White House suddenly made it clear that there would be no summit between the European Union and the United States in late May, as had been widely anticipated.

It’s a great service that Barack Obama rendered to Europeans. This humiliation probably convinced a few more of the obvious need to finally get their acts together and be more united on foreign policy if they want to have a say in the world — or just be taken seriously.

What makes the rebuff particularly stinging is that Europeans know Mr. Obama is right; they know he would welcome and regularly meet a senior European Union official, or even several (provided they don’t rotate every six months), who would actually talk for all of Europe. (Not to mention their dashed hopes in the Lisbon Treaty, which was supposed to enhance their diplomatic credibility.)

In fact, much of Europe’s progress in foreign policy in the past two decades came after similar moments of frustration, humiliation and antagonism.

The various failures of Europe in the Balkans throughout the 1990s spurred a more united foreign policy and the creation of Europe’s common security and defense capabilities. The Iraq war led public opinion to briefly coalesce against the Bush administration and allowed Europeans to feel more European, and the painful divisions it engendered led leaders to adopt the common security strategy and to be more united and firm on Iran’s nuclear program.

In truth, if Europe is to ever rise to the status of great power, it will need not only more brush-offs from America, but also more antagonism from Russia and China. The problem, right now, is that Moscow and Beijing have fine-tuned their policy of divide and rule and play this card to the perfection.

Russia calibrates its provocations and knows exactly how far it can push without triggering a meaningful reaction from Europeans or encouraging a sudden leap in unity and resolve. China never snubs the European Union as such, but makes sure to maximize divisions among member states who are all too happy to break ranks in exchange for temporary economic favors.

Of course, ideally, Europe would not need “enemies,” crisis or painful challenges to coalesce its forces. But let’s face it: Europe will never be a meaningful player without some sort of external spur. It will take more than fine arguments and patient education to shake off complacency and overcome the go-it-alone and free-ride tendencies of national policies.

In this sense, the current world is not stable and peaceful enough for Europe to simply be Europe — the multilateral normative paragon, the non-aggressive and herbivorous power, as the European Council on Foreign Relations once labeled it. But it is not multipolar and competitive enough, or not yet, to compel it to become more coherent, assertive and hard-headed.

Wishing for more external pressure and calling for a more aggressive Europe are not synonymous with nostalgia for the 19th century, which ended in World War I, nor with renouncing the specific European identity of promoting a rule-based world order.

Europe does not need to abandon its ideals or renege itself to succeed internationally. It simply needs to add more realpolitik to its foreign-policy mix, which would include a dramatic improvement in diplomatic unity.

The world is now post-American and multipolar in many aspects; it is less friendly for Europeans than it was in the 1990s, and it is time they adapt their stance. To put it simply, if Europe does not become more nasty, it will end up as many herbivorous powers of the past did.

The Copenhagen summit on climate change last December provides an excellent illustration of this. Europe had made admirable and painful efforts to reach internal unity to reduce carbon emissions. But its Boy-Scout strategy of leading by example (if other countries reached a deal, Europe would raise its efforts from 20 to 30 percent) and its ultimate lack of unity at the summit ensured that its leverage would be negligible in the face of great powers determined to do as little as possible.

Europe should have brought guns as well as candies to the meeting — threatening, for example, to impose a green tax on imports from countries not contributing to common efforts at some point in the future.

Until Europeans find such resolve, assertiveness and unity, let’s hope President Obama snubs them again. And again.