America’s foreign policy leaders, both within the U.S. government and elsewhere, are losing patience with Europe. President Barack Obama, who by all accounts is proving a business like and unsentimental occupant of the Oval Office, is having to contend with a serious economic recession and now feels he has repeatedly turned to Europe yet has received little in the way of a concrete policy response. The White House believes his time was wasted at the last U.S.-EU summit in Prague, and so cancelled the next summit scheduled for Madrid.
The decision to do so was a clear signal that the U.S. was not going to waste any more time with eurocrats and a leaderless Europe. Washington’s interpretation of the EU’s Lisbon treaty appointments has been that the major EU powers want to deal with foreign policy themselves, and do not want to see Brussels take on a significant role. There may be a single phone number in Brussels, but it is answered by a receptionist. Add to this the victory of David Cameron in the UK, the unpredictability of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and the lack of foreign policy leadership or vision in Berlin, and the conclusion in Washington is that it has no reliable partner on the European continent.
Not that things are that much better in the United States. President Obama is increasingly pre-occupied by domestic problems and priorities and also lacks the resources to support America’s over-extended global role, let alone take on new commitments. The United States is being forced to down-size and out-source its foreign policy, and to make tough choices on where its key priorities in the world lie.
In many ways, though, America needs a strong European partner more than ever, and one area where this partner is badly needed is in Russia policy. The U.S. relationship with Russia remains important to Obama’s agenda, not so much in a bi-lateral sense but in what it can do to assist the U.S. in dealing with key global issues. Obama would like to de-escalate tensions with Moscow so as to reduce the over-extension of America’s commitments. Being a realist, the President understands that America’s margin for error is thinner than it was during its era of dominance and that big powers matter more than small ones. Russia is important to dealing with many of the key challenges facing his Administration, including the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, combatting terrorism and shaping a more stable international order. Russia is also important in dealing with Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. Moscow and Washington both have important stakes in the control and reduction of nuclear arsenals, while at the same time the U.S. does not accept Russian claims on Ukraine and Georgia or its attempts to use its energy resources to dominate east and central Europe.
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Professor Stephen Szabo is Director of Research at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and professor of European Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.
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