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Eco president

December 8, 2009

In Barack Obama, Europe got the president it wanted. But instead of supporting his shift on climate change and other topics, Europeans still have unrealistic expectations, says the head of an EU think tank.

Obama speaks at DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia, Florida in October 2009
President Obama has been pushing solar energy as part of his green initiativeImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Álvaro de Vasconcelos has been the Director of the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) since May 2007. Together with Marcin Zaborowski he edited the newly released book "The Obama Moment: European and American perspectives" which was introduced during the recently held EU-Washington Forum.

Deutsche Welle: President Barack Obama was elected more than a year ago and a lot has happened since then in transatlantic relations. What is the state of the European-American relationship today?

Àlvaro de Vasconcelos: Obama is the president the Europeans have asked for. He is a president that follows a foreign policy that is so similar to the Europeans that we are even puzzled by it. In this sense we can only welcome Obama. It's now for us to be more assertive and less shy. I think we have been a little too shy in our relations with Obama during this year. We have not been supportive enough in what Obama's trying to do.

In a certain sense there is in Europe a kind of uneasiness because we lost our exceptionalism. We were the good guys in the world before, we were the multilaterialists and we were for engagement and for peace. Now we have an American president who shares that perspective and so we lost some of our exceptionalism. And of course as president of the United States he is more forceful, he has more capacity to act and we are asking him to act in a more forceful way.

As you put it, the Europeans got the president they wanted, but they still don't support him fully, i.e. to help close Guantanamo by taking in prisoners or by sending more troops to Afghanistan. Why does it seem like Europe is not willing or able to back up its rhetoric with actions that would actually fulfill its own demands?

I agree fully with what you said. We have a strategic interest in the success of Obama. That success is not a given, we don't know what will happen in the next presidential election, so we need to use this window of opportunity. This is what we call "The Obama moment" in our new book. For the Europeans this means to act in a more decisive way to support what Obama wants to do that corresponds to the European agenda.

Chinese Uighur Guantanamo detainees, show a home-made note to visiting members of the media
Europe has been reluctant to accept prisoners from GuantanamoImage: AP

You gave the example of Guantanamo which is a really good one. We have demanded the closure of Guantanamo and we know the internal difficulties in the US and the reactions to Obama doing what we asked, which is to try the Guantanamo prisoners in civilian courts. So we could and we should do much more to help him with that.

Another example is his nuclear disarmament agenda which is very far-reaching. Of course this has strong support in European public opinion. But I am not so sure it has the same support in some European countries. And it's clear that domestically he faces a lot of opposition to his disarmament agenda, so support from Europe would be very welcome by Obama in the internal debate.

Take the Middle East as another example. The Middle East is very difficult to deal with for both Obama and for Europe. After Obama's important Cairo speech, I think Europe should have moved in a much more decisive way to complement and help Obama, particularly to work with the Arab states, with which Europe has good relations. So there is definitely a lack of European activity and decisive action on the foreign policy agenda in relation to Obama. This is a window of opportunity that Europe should not lose.

The expectations and popularity numbers for Obama in Europe are still so high that he is almost guaranteed to fail by those standards. Many Europeans for example expected that Obama would sign on to a binding successor to the Kyoto treaty, never mind that such a treaty would have little chance to be ratified by congress. By expecting more of Obama than of any of their own national leaders, are Europeans setting themselves up to be disappointed?

You are right that Europeans expect an agreement in Copenhagen which is unrealistic. Our best hope is that Obama is in fact the most ecological president in the history of the United States. And he would like to move that ecological agenda. For us to be smart, we need to understand the internal American difficulties and to work with that.

Angela Merkel addresses a joint session of congress, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009
German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to Congress to move forward on climate policyImage: AP

And of course Angela Merkel's recent speech before Congress was very positive, because that was exactly what we should be doing. We need to go forward step by step. If the Americans in Copenhagen bind themselves to a political agreement, we should work for a more binding agreement at the conference in Mexico one year later. And that would be already a huge step forward compared to the previous US administration or even the Clinton administration on this issue.

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge