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Low expectations

Ivan Krastev
January 17, 2013

Plagued by deep domestic problems, Barack Obama would love to outsource many international issues to the EU in his second term. The problem is no one knows whether Europe is up to the task, writes Ivan Krastev.

Fertige Flaggen (EU, USA) in der Fahnenfabrik Dommer in Stuttgart, aufgenommen am 18.11.2004. Foto: Jürgen Effner +++(c) dpa - Report+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Is the European Union willing and capable to preserve the current liberal European order at the moment when Russia has turned her back on the West, Turkey has lost hope of joining the EU and the European periphery lies in shambles?

And would the EU be America's reliable partner outside Europe at a moment when Washington lacks the resources and the appetite to be the global policeman while the world is in constant turmoil?

These are probably the two critical questions that will define President Barack Obama's European agenda during his second term.

Inward-looking nation

The financial crisis has made America feel the limits of her global power. The "D"- word for decline is a four letter-word for any US president. Still, Barack Obama better than his predecessors and his critics realizes the extent to which America's role in the world will be constrained by the size of its huge public debt and by the country's frustrating experience in dealing with post-war engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The crisis has forced Americans to take a closer look at their own country and what they saw was not inspiring. The lead protagonist of the popular TV drama The Newsroom captures this new mood of bitterness and frustration when he reveals that, while America used to talk about itself as the greatest nation in the world, in reality:

Ivan Krastev, Chairman, Centre for Liberal Strategies. Foto: Ivan Krastev Rechte geklärt, zugeliefert von: DW/ M. Knigge, EP
Ivan KrastevImage: Ivan Krastev

"We're seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, fourth in labor force, and fourth in exports. We lead the world in only 3 categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending where we spend more than the next 26 countries combine."

So, not surprisingly the president's efforts will be focused to reform America and not to transform the world.

Solid partner needed

But in order to buy time for his American rebuilding project Obama needs to know how effective the EU can be as a regional power and how ambitious the EU will be as a global power.

It is now pretty obvious that the US does not have any resources to continue its commitment in places like the Balkans or Ukraine; Obama's reset with Russia is history and Washington is eager to "outsource" all Europe related problems to Brussels.

But can Obama rely on the EU to get Moscow right? Can Obama outsource the problems of wider Europe to a Union that undergoes the most dangerous crisis in its existence?

Many in Washington are skeptical but the President does not have much of a choice.

Looming British EU exit

When it comes to the world outside of Europe, Obama's fears are even greater. If the euro crisis and a possible break-up of the European Union was a major concern for the White House in 2012, at the start of his second term it is Britain and not Greece that preoccupies the President's mind.

It is not difficult to guess that an EU without Britain will become even more provincial and inward looking. So, the decline of British influence in the EU can only mean more problems for Washington. That begs the logical question: Is the US influential enough to keep the UK in the EU?

When it comes to big ideas in US-EU bilateral relations one quickly notices that they are mostly absent.

No grand strategy

The perspective of a transatlantic free-trade area is the only big idea that has remained in the portfolio. It appeals not only to the business community but also to all those who believe in the re-invention of the West. But while attractive in principle, it would be a nightmare if it ever came down to the renegotiation of the regulation regimes.

So what should Europeans and the EU expect from Barack Obama's second term? Not much, I am afraid.

President Obama does not have a grand strategy for the EU. What he has instead are fears and hopes. And it will be the balance between fears and hopes that will determine his policies during his second term.

Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM) and a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book "In Mistrust We Trust" was published by TED earlier this month.

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