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Europe

Spotlight Falls on Europe as Obama Counts Down to Presidency

With a month and half still to go before US President-elect Barack Obama is sworn into office, a light has been turned on the state of US-Europe relations and the thorny question of Russia.

US President-elect Barack Obama waves before delivering a speach to 200,000 in Berlin

An estimated 200,000 people turned out to hear Barack Obama speak in Berlin in July

Popular opinion will tell you that the go-it-alone policies of outgoing US President George W Bush's administration further widened the trans-Atlantic gap and caused millions of Europeans to unequivocally throw their weight behind an Obama presidency.

The hope that, under Obama, the US would take on a more multilateral approach in its foreign policy and would attempt to repair damaged bonds with its European allies has been largely responsible for the fanfare surrounding the former junior Senator from Illinois.

"There was an enthusiasm for what most Europeans understand to be an individual who, again, unlike Bush, they perceive to share most of their deepest ideological and philosophical commitments, both in terms of domestic policy -- a more activist stake -- but also in terms of foreign policy -- a more restrained and less unilateral American foreign policy," Wess Mitchell of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis told news broadcaster Voice of America.

"That's at least what most Europeans expect to see under an Obama administration."

But one glaring question to which the world awaits an answer is whether President-elect Obama can live up to the hope he has aroused in millions of people for change.

For this reason, Obama's inner circle has been warning against expecting too much too soon from the incoming US president, insisting that the raft of quandaries currently affecting the US and Europe cannot be solved overnight.

European assistance

US President-elect Barack Obama, left, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin

Obama will likely look to Europe, and Germany, for more troops for Afghanistan

With a to-do list that includes keeping an eye on uranium enrichment in Iran, a resurgent Russia, NATO expansion, European missile defense, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis, Obama may need all the help he can get from Europe.

Indeed the war in Afghanistan, and the involvement of European troops in it, could prove to be a litmus test for how far European states are prepared to go in support of the US.

William Drozdiak, President of the American Council on Germany, said European NATO members should be ready to step up if called upon to give greater assistance in combating the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"There's clearly a desire by not just the Obama administration, but by all the other NATO allies … who have troops in southern Afghanistan, who want to see the burden shared equally," he says.

"This whole question of 'caveats,' of opting out of missions that are deemed to be too dangerous, is something that is bad for morale within the alliance."

Russian ties

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, and US President George Bush, right

Recent Russia-US relations have been no walk in the park

But of greater importance to many Europeans is the re-emergence of Russia as a major world player, the fears this brings for European energy security, and the way in which the Kremlin will react to an Obama administration.

Moscow has been severely irked of late by two developments it considers direct threats to its security: Georgian and Ukrainian membership of NATO and the US anti-missile shield planned for installation in Poland and the Czech Republic.

But all signs so far point to an easing of tensions over these matters, with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin saying Thursday, Dec. 4, he had received "positive signals" from Obama's camp that could herald an upturn in Moscow's relations with Washington.

"Speaking to people who are very close to the newly elected president and his circle -- his assistants -- we are hearing that there is no reason to hurry (with NATO expansion) .... There is no reason to damage relations with Russia," he said during an open question-and-answer session broadcast live on Russian state television.

"We are hearing there is a need to re-evaluate the appropriateness of deploying the missile-defence system in Poland and corresponding radars in the Czech Republic," he added.

"If these are not just words and translate into real actions, we will respond in kind and our American partners will immediately feel this.

"We hope very much there will be positive changes. Right now we are seeing some positive signals," he said in response to a question about how he saw the future of US-Russian ties.

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