Barack Obama's accession to power has been unusually popular. He has the highest approval rating of any incoming president in a generation. But it is not just Americans who have fallen in love with their president. Canadians give the first black U.S. president a whopping 86 percent affirmation. Germans turned out in the hundreds of thousands to hear Obama speak in Berlin last June. The English, the French, the Spanish, the Italians- all love this magnificent orator who is now the most powerful man in the world.
But it will not last. It cannot last. Disillusionment will inevitably set in, as nations realize that Barack Obama is the president of the United States only. He's not president of the world. It is America's problems he will be consumed with, and America's interests he will be upholding. True, bolstering the American image abroad is crucial to waging a successful foreign policy. But ultimately, only Americans vote for their president and congresses, only Americans will cast ballots in the 2010 mid-term election and the 2012 presidential election.
That doesn't mean European countries won't get heard by the Obama administration. But it means their voices will naturally be drowned out by louder, more numerous and powerful American ones. Western Europeans want the U.S. to leave Afghanistan? That will conflict with the majority of Americans who say that war should be fought, and can be won. All European countries want the U.S. to develop stronger environmental standards and commit to fighting global warming? They'll have to muscle for elbow room with American voters whose overwhelming priority is the economy.
The reality is that America and European countries have different and sometimes conflicting interests, and they always will. Not even a politician as smooth and persuasive as Barack Obama can alter that fact. Once Europeans presently glowing with Obamamania recognize that, disillusionment will sink in. They will think that Obama is just another cynical, arrogant American politician, no less committed to maintaining American power than any other president.
But Obama never promised to be anything else. He never said that he would be representing the world in his decision-making. He famously claimed he was a "global citizen" in his speech in Germany, but this is little more than a meaningless cliché meant to ingratiate himself with international audiences. Because Obama is a conciliator, a liberal and critical of the Bush administration, many Europeans naturally like him. But he cannot be what they expect him to be.
Luckily, there are steps policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic can take to keep the Euro-American relationship running smoothly when the Obama honeymoon comes to an end. On the U.S. side, Obama and administration officials can be forthright about their limits in accommodating European nations' interests. Talking of common values and heritage is important, but so is being realistic. Obama has been masterful at preparing the American public for a difficult economic period. A New York Times/CBS poll published in the January 17th issue of the Times stated that Americans are "confident he can turn the economy around but prepared to give him years to deal with the crushes of problems he faces starting [inauguration day],"
That qualified optimism is the realistic tone the administration should be setting with Europeans. Yes, the US will listen more than it did in the Bush years. But the country will still have its own agenda, and that won't always fit with Europeans' desires.
From their side, European leaders would be wise to tell their publics the same thing. That Obama is as attractive a leader as Europeans are going to get, but he's still an American president. Expectations should be lowered.
If the European publics come to accept that Obama is not their leader, then the Bush years can be left behind, and a new phase of trans-Atlantic relations can begin.
Jordan Michael Smith is a Press Officer at the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) in Washington, DC. His views are not necessarily representative of PNSR's.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Memo 10: Time to Start Transatlantic Relations Afresh
- Matthew Yglesias: How to Repair Our Relationship with Europe
- Nanne Zwagerman: Obama The Atlanticist?