A View from Europe

Written on November 13, 2012 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Americas, Democracy & Human Rights, Europe, Foreign Policy, Political Economy

The European Union can play a key role in Obama’s second-term foreign policy agenda.

By Ana Palacio, Member of the IE International Advisor Board

Barack Obama’s sweeping triumph in the presidential elections, including in critical battleground states, prompted a sigh of relief in numerous quarters and most capitals of Europe, where Obama, despite his emphatic orientation away from Europe, is seen as representing more closely the ethos and Weltanschauung of the old continent.

In his victory speech, which described the democratic process as often being “noisy, messy and complicated,” Obama made a token reference to the traditional American principles of self-reliance and individualism. But while he mentioned the importance of personal ambition and self-government, the President focused more closely on the notions of shared destiny and solidarity, on the concepts of family, community and nationhood, and their role in securing the future. These are values that speak loudly to European allies across the ocean, even coming from America’s first “Asian President,” as Obama famously described himself.

With emotions still running high, the focus is now shifting to the second-term agenda and the road ahead. Although the common wisdom is that Obama is liberated from the tyranny of seeking re-election, in two years’ time he will start working on behalf of his party in preparation for the next presidential elections (in which he could be repaying his debt to the Clintons). In the short run Obama is returning to a Congress whose make up will mimic closely that of his first term (a Democratic Senate and a Republican House), posing familiar challenges. He will thus have a mere two uphill years to outline his legacy.

In addition to the long list of issues facing Congress in the lame duck period this winter, including the fiscal cliff, cyber security, and trade relations with Russia, Obama will have to use this narrow window of opportunity to define the goals and priorities that will determine his legacy. In this context, aside from the daunting domestic challenges, three areas emerge as vital in the realm of foreign affairs: Iran, China and the broader Middle East. In these, the European Union, although its present standing is monopolized by bleak news and gloomy forecasts, has a role to play.

During his first term, President Obama bet a lot on the “pivot” to Asia, a strategy that not only entrenched China’s homegrown nationalism and solidified the positions of belligerents within the higher echelons, as reflected in policies towards its neighbors, but also led Beijing to retreat from the strategic engagement with the United States. The so-called “pivot” not only rests on the untenable and short-sighted notion that U.S. time, effort, attention and resources should be relocated east at the expense of other priorities; more critically, it risks putting the United States and China on a collision course that is neither inevitable nor desirable. As China’s leadership transition moves forward and the new leaders settle into power, the United States has an opportunity—namely, a two-year acclimatization period that would allow it to discreetly redefine the relationship with Beijing and raise important issues without any unnecessary fanfare. Read more…

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish Foreign Minister and former senior vice president of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State.

As published by The American Interest on November 9, 2012.


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