US President Barack Obama has called on America and Europe to renew their flagging global leadership. But the Atlantic partners first must redefine their relationship in the face of Arab uprisings and Asian strength.
Obama hopes to re-energize old partnerships
In his address to the British Parliament, Barack Obama called for the United States and Europe to take on a global leadership role by setting a democratic example to the rest of the world, even as the decade-long war in Afghanistan grinds on and a stubborn financial crisis worries both sides of the Atlantic.
Obama's speech on Wednesday, the first by an American president in London's 900-year-old Westminster Hall, was the keynote address of a European tour that led him from Ireland to Poland in a bid to inspire a renewed sense of purpose in a Western world demoralized by a wrenching start to the new millennium.
The trans-Atlantic partnership has survived the 10-year crisis that began with the September 11 attacks and ended with the near collapse of the global financial system. As a new decade dawns, Europe and the US are struggling to come to terms with the fact that their historic partnership is changing in response to revolts in the Arab world and stunning economic growth in Asia.
Relationship in transition
According to Frances Burwell, an expert on US-European relations with the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C., the trans-Atlantic alliance has historically focused on peace and stability on the European continent, a consequence of WWII and the subsequent Cold War. The 21st century, however, has brought a fundamental shift in that relationship.
"September 11 really changed all that. It was the first time NATO had implemented Article 5," Burwell told Deutsche Welle, referring to the alliance's mutual defense clause.
"It was for the Americans, which nobody ever expected," she continued. "But it also made us see that threats could come from farther a field, and it made us recognize we had to be ready to deal with threats to our security that didn't come from immediately next door."
The G8, largely a Euro-American club, has taken a backseat to the G20
In response to the attacks, Western armies invaded Afghanistan, an Islamic nation they had trained for decades to defend itself against the Soviet Union, far from the European continent. Burwell says this ambitious foreign military operation in Central Asia shifted the alliance from a narrow focus on Europe to a broader partnership aimed at combating more global challenges.
"The basic transition is that we have gone from talking about the relationship itself, the bilateral US-European relationship, to talking about what we do together about other problems [and] issues in the world," Burwell said.
Xenia Dormandy, an expert on US foreign policy with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, says the trans-Atlantic relationship swings like a pendulum, alternating between low and high points.
While the perception of the relationship's importance may have ebbed when Obama first took office, she says there is a growing recognition that the partnership is critical to tackling increasingly complex global challenges beyond Europe.
"The relationship needs to be strengthened not just in reality but actually in perception as well," Dormandy told Deutsche Welle.
"We have a lot on the agenda. There's more recent events such as what's going on in the Middle East and North Africa that really do require - particularly the US and the UK - to work more closely together, to think more closely."
During the Group of Eight (G8) summit in Deauville, France, the US and Europe sought to demonstrate the global leadership role Obama called for in London by agreeing to provide billions of dollars in aid to support the so-called Arab Spring, particularly democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.
Obama became the first American president to give an address in Westminster Hall
Yet the G8, once the steering committee of the global world order, has increasingly taken a backseat to the broader G20, which includes rapidly rising powers such as China, India and Brazil.
Dormandy acknowledges that America's burgeoning engagement with India and China, as well as its reset with Russia, are critical to US national interests. She says, however, that these new relationships lack the depth of the trans-Atlantic partnership.
"All of these are dynamic, complicated and vital, but they don't have the history and the strength and the solidity of America's relationship with Europe," she said. "It's not a zero-sum game. It doesn't have to be one or the other."
Although America's relationship with Europe is rooted in history, Washington's fate has become deeply intertwined with developments in the Middle East, Asia and Russia over the past decade. As consequence, the US has largely shifted its political attention towards the large emerging powers.
Central European nations such as Poland, where Obama spent the final leg of his trip, have expressed growing concern that Washington is overlooking their security as it seeks to improve ties with Russia by inviting Moscow to participate in the construction of a missile shield.
"From Europe's perspective the United States is a partner, but it's also a partner with a lot of interests around the world and sometimes it's hard to get our attention," Burwell said.
According to Ulrike Guérot, director of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, President Obama is seeking a US-led multilateral approach to global governance based on what different nations can bring to the table in terms of concrete actions.
Guérot told Deutsche Welle that while Washington welcomes European cooperation, the Obama administration increasingly judges the trans-Atlantic partnership based on its utility in terms of achieving real political goals.
"The Obama thinking is beyond classical alliances, it's beyond classical organizations, and it's in a way beyond the US-EU relationship," Guérot said.
Building partnerships in Europe is complex due to the continent's maze of political institutions. According to Burwell, Washington has to simultaneously engage the continent through NATO, the individual nation-states, as well as through the European Union.
The Anglo-American "special relationship" remains strong despite strains
"Europe is a very complicated actor from an American perspective," Burwell said.
As a result, Washington finds it difficult to engage a European continent that often lacks a common voice on global issues. Guérot says the US has been disappointed with Europe's reluctance to engage in Afghanistan and that it did not assume full responsibility for the intervention Libya.
"We were accustomed to being pampered by the US on the security and defense side. The US spent four decades paying for that for Europe," Guérot said. "We are not accustomed to being autonomous on that."
Although America and Europe continue to face difficulties in building common positions in a rapidly changing world, the economic crisis has laid bare how interconnected the two continents are and has put a premium on cooperation for financial reasons.
"As budgets are decreasing, it becomes all the more important that allies work together and work together effectively," Dormandy said.
According to Guérot, Obama wants to share the burdens of global responsibility with partners who recognize the reality of the 21st century - a world where the West can still lead, but will no longer dominate.
"Let's move beyond nostalgia and this romanticist approach to trans-Atlantic relations," Guérot said."Let's be more sober, let's be pragmatic."
Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn