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Obama's UK Speech: A Strategic Challenge for Europe?

Commentary, 27 May 2011
Americas, Europe
Behind his warm and effusive speech to the great and the good in Parliament, President Obama laid out a subtle but serious challenge to Europe's leaders. Europe, and by extension the UK, will be farther down America's foreign policy priorities unless Europe is willing to step up as a truly global partner.

Behind his warm and effusive speech to the great and the good in Parliament, President Obama laid out a subtle but serious challenge to Europe's leaders. Europe, and by extension the UK, will be farther down America's foreign policy priorities unless Europe is willing to step up as a truly global partner.

By Dr Lisa Aronsson, Research Fellow and Head, Transatlantic Programme, RUSI

Cameron Obama Barbeque - Prime Ministers Office

President Barack Obama's state visit to the United Kingdom did plenty to reassure Britons of the enduring connection between the United States and the UK. In his speech to Parliament, he said the two nations remain 'indispensable' partners, 'special' and even 'essential' allies, but the messaging in Obama's speech was clear. The US needs more: it needs truly global partners. The Westminster speech made the case for stronger UK and European leadership, and a global transatlantic partnership.

The effusive tone may well have reassured skeptical Britons that the special relationship is still alive and well, and it is, especially in the realm of defence consultations, security concerns and intelligence sharing. But the fact remains that Europe and European issues still rank very low on the American foreign policy agenda except in areas where Europe has stakes, influence and leverage. Obama has challenged the UK and he will challenge other European leaders to engage more deeply in foreign affairs, to reach into their pockets to support democratic transition in the Middle East, to spend more on their own security, and to begin to pay the price for the positions of global leadership that they have enjoyed. As academic  Nick Kitchen argued, the era of 'grandstanding on the bandwagon of American power' is over.

Pivotal Moment for Economic Leadership

Obama argued that the US and the UK find themselves at a 'pivotal moment'. The worst of the last decade is over: the economy has come out of the crisis, combat troops are now out of Iraq; terrorist networks have been disrupted around the world and the Al-Qa'ida leader killed. In Afghanistan NATO and its allies have turned the tides against the Taliban and put in place a strategy for transition to Afghan leadership with resources to back it up. At the same time, the international order has been transformed by the new powers, transnational threats require cooperative solutions, and the prosperity of all nations is 'inextricably linked'.

The moment brings an opportunity for UK and US leadership, and as the 'greatest catalysts for global action' and the 'most willing to stand up for values of tolerance and self-determination', he called on the UK - and Europe more generally - to address those threats in a global partnership with the US. Setting a framework for the G8 discussion, Obama argued that joint leadership must begin with economic action. His request to Europe was for more investment in the economies of nations such as Egypt and Tunisia and more support for those seeking their own freedom. The transitions were sparked by economic woes, and cannot be completed without more support for education, small business, human rights and civil society. The US needs Europe, but because of the current climate, however, Europeans will find it difficult to step up to the challenge and dig deep into their pockets.

Obama also stressed the need for a new architecture of partnerships and alliances. The US and the UK live in an economy 'largely of their own making' that favours nations that innovate and invest in education, science, regulation and environmental sustainability. The US needs a global partner to help influence the orientation of emerging states, and it needs partnerships to reform the institutions for global economic governance. Voting reform has begun in the Bretton Woods institutions, but a more significant cultural shift is required, and the G20 needs a more focused agenda and mechanisms for follow-up and implementation to be effective. Regular consultations are taking place, to be sure, but more leadership is required. There is much the US and Europe can do amongst themselves to set an example for others and ensure the promotion of open markets and free trade should the Doha Round fail. 


Turning up the Heat on Security

Obama reaffirmed Article 5 and the concept of collective security in his speech, but made the case for more strategic cooperation on a global level. The UK and Europe may not bring influence to bear in certain parts of East Asia, but they can do more in South Asia, the Middle East and in North Africa. In Afghanistan, Obama argued, the US and the UK have common interests in a positive evolution for Afghanistan and despite differences in priorities, both have now come round to support a joint strategy for Afghan transition. The UK had previously been more committed to a fixed withdrawal date while the US insisted on conditions-based transition but both now agree on a date and understand they need to move towards a political process rather than a set of conditions. Prior differences over the so-called diplomatic surge, reconciliation and reintegration have also been managed. The real question is whether or not the strategy can work.

Discussion on Libya, on the other hand, revealed transatlantic tensions as well as real strategic challenges for the alliance. Cameron and Obama vowed to 'turn up the heat' in Libya and ramp up pressure on Qadhafi, but the US has been adamant from the beginning that European allies they refer to as NATO should take the lead. The UK and France will be pleased with the US Predator strikes in Libya, but frustrations linger over what they perceived as too little support from the US, and support that came only after intense public pressure. Neither country was prepared for the US to take a back seat in the operation and offer only limited resources. Obama, however, rejected the assumption that the US had a 'whole bunch of secret, super-effective air assets in a warehouse somewhere' that could have an immediate, decisive impact in Libya.

What the operation shows, is just how enduring American and European assumptions about one another have become. While the UK, France, Norway, Denmark and a handful of other nations undertake a major military operation the US sees itself as outside that framework. It is deeply uncomfortable engaging militarily and it is more focused on managing economic and political change in the region as a whole. From the US standpoint it is entirely reasonable to let NATO take the lead in an area where Europeans have significant regional and national interests at stake. For transatlantic relations, the conflict demonstrates enduring assumptions on both sides of the Atlantic. The US demands better cooperation and more crisis management capabilities in Europe, which it sees as a sort of subcontractor for regional security. European assumptions, on the other hand, that the US is the ultimate guarantor of stability are deeply entrenched in their mindsets, institutions and policy-making processes.

Europe Still Not a Priority

Despite Obama's effusive praise for the UK, European concerns still rank very low on the list of American foreign policy priorities. To be sure, Americans do have some serious concerns about certain developments in Europe. They are increasingly worried about Greek default, about the Eurozone economic crisis and the capacity and political will of the European institutions to back up their currency. There are also concerns in Washington about the breakdown of the Schengen process and the influx of refugees, the decline in European spending on defence and security and the European worldview that represents, and longer term questions about burden sharing and NATO's efficiency as a military and diplomatic actor.

None of these concerns make the UK or Europe a priority for the United States. Both are important to the United States in areas where they have stakes and where they can bring influence to bear and this includes in economic governance, counter-terrorism, cyber security, Russia, the Greater Middle East and South Asia. President Obama retains a deeply pragmatic and business-oriented approach to foreign policy and it is no wonder that the effusive tone in the Westminster speech rang hollow. He will look to the UK and to Europe to contribute where they can, but unless they are willing to become global partners, and back up their global ambitions with resources, the special relationship and the indispensable, essential alliance will remain confined to history. If Obama intended to encourage strategic decision-making, strong institutions and transatlantic leadership, Brussels may have provided a better venue.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not nessecarily reflect those of RUSI

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