Matt Yglesias wrote a column last week in which he disputed what he termed the "counterintuitive" view that President Obama's relations with Europe will not necessarily improve as much or as swiftly as is commonly imagine. On the contray, he suggested, simpley a) not being George W Bush and b) not going out of his way to insult or alienate Europeans would indeed go a long way towards reviving a spirit of transatlantic comity. Robert Kaplan made some similar points in the Atlantic: Obama enters the market at a time when US foreign policy stock is so depressed, the only way is up.
Now clearly there's something to this. European public opinion is likely to be vastly more receptive to President Obama than it has been to President Bush and it's true that this may create some room for European governments to hop on board and enjoy the ride alongside the new American president. But at the risk of seeming a terrible spoilsport, might I suggest that friendly and polite attitude may not be enough?
This week, for instance, NATO meets in Brussels and, for some reason, the idea of Georgia and the Ukraine joining the alliance is back on the agenda. Perhaps the new President will be able to persuade us that this is a fine and sensible idea, but it's not clear what arguments he can deploy that are not already in the field. And if he wants a favour on this then it's reasonable to suppose that there'll be a price to be paid elsewhere.
Then there's Iran. It's no secret that Obama's proposals for engagement with Tehran have worried some in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and London. Now it may well be that Obama's ideas are good ones, but he hasn't yet (obviously) persuaded Europe that they are. Indeed, the Bush administration has pursued a kind of quasi-realist, multilateral approach in its second term that could itself be taken as a refutation of its more ill-tempered approach in its first four years. And yet despite this mollification and prudence, significant differences remain between the Atlantic allies.
No surprise there, perhaps. And the US cannot have it both ways: it cannot reasonably ask Europe to do more and then complain if Europe declines to fall into line behind US proposals. Doing more requires a greater degree of independence from Washington.
And so to Afghanistan. Obama, like Bush and SecDef Gates before him, is likely to ask Europe to pour more troops into Afghanistan and to loosen rules of engagement once the boys are in theatre. As Matt puts it, there's no guarantee that Obama can achieve this:
But what improved U.S. standing in Europe will do is transform the politics of the situation. At the moment, even those European political leaders who agree on the merits of the American perspective are terrified to say so. The combination of Bush's toxic unpopularity and the sense that help given to the U.S. in Afghanistan would, in effect, be assistance for what's widely viewed as a criminal enterprise in Iraq makes it a nonstarter. A new administration and a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq would clear the air. And steps to show that Europe's high hopes for Obama in terms of basic human rights, diplomatic courtesy, and engagement with issues like climate change would allow Obama to make his case to Europe's people and turn public opinion around. At a time when the United States is militarily and financially exhausted, but also desperate for a renewed approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, that's change we need.
Perhaps Obama really can persuade European public opinion. But since, as matters stand, no-one thinks there's a military solution to the Afghan problem I'm not quite sure what Obama can offer to make the mission any more appealling. Put yourself in Danish or Portuguese or Italian shoes: what's in it for you? Why would you join a mission no-one thinks is winnable? (Maybe a new strategy can change that, but that too is something that remains to be seen.) It isn't simply Iraq; it's the growing perception that many people feel they have little to know idea why, nearly seven years later, we're still in Afghanistan. What are we actually doing there? What can we actually realistically hope to achieve?
And I'm afraid that closing Guantanamo and (officially at least) putting an end to torture are necessary first steps, not an end in themselves. That's the bare minimum required and no-one should think Washington will get credit for this. It's like asking to be applauded for ceasing to beat your wife. Sure it's better than continuining to beat her but just stopping doesn't change the fact that she's a bloody mess.
It would be lovely to think that Obama can bring a new period of transatlantic harmony. But it just isn't the case that American interests are necessarily the same as European interests. The Security Card trumped everything during the Cold War but these are changed times. And there were, in any case, always more differences than seemed the case then too, these days they're much clearer to see. A new President may find it difficult to change that. Or, to put it another way, he may need to give something up himself to advance American interests in other areas.