Eight years ago, we watched an American rock star perform on a hot summer day in Berlin. That he was also a young, black politician seemed a revelation to the crowd. They swooned to his lyrics that promised “justice and peace” and “new walls we must tear down.” Europeans believed he was “their” candidate for the U.S. presidency.
Barack Obama is ending his final European tour as president. He still remains a pop icon in some corners and around three-quarters of the public in Great Britain, France, and Germany trust he will “do the right thing in world affairs.” Yet the early wave of enthusiasm in 2008 has waned dramatically. By 2013, the occasion of Obama’s second speech in Berlin was a sweaty, boring affair that was soon marred by revelations of U.S intelligence activities in Europe. Obama’s swan song this weekend in Hannover will likely be bittersweet.
Obama has proven to be a president like many before him. His priorities were shaped by domestic politics and foreign challenges well beyond Europe’s borders, whether it be the turmoil in the Middle East or the rise of Asia. Only the reappearance of an aggressive Russia in Obama’s second term reminded him of what was at stake in Europe. The halting effort to achieve a transatlantic trade deal, which he will again push in Hannover this weekend, has little chance of passing this election year—it is too much, too late.
Europeans also have a nagging suspicion that Obama was never really interested in them. In contrast to their hopes, the relationship with the United States seems mundane and transactional; it is increasingly shaped more by mutual interest rather than empathy. During the Obama administration, long-simmering frustrations emerged in the wake of the financial crisis and the revelations over government surveillance.
However, no American president will “belong” to Europe. Each comes with a unique mix of personal idiosyncrasies, highly-charged political ambition, and an expertise which may or may not include familiarity with other parts of the world. They also inherit the policies and structures of the U.S. government. These parameters and the shifting priorities of the U.S. electorate shape the course of the occupant in the White House.
No single administration in Washington can thus drastically alter the shape and structure of transatlantic relations. That bond is enshrined in our democratic constitutions, networks of economic opportunity, and joint stake in a secure and peaceful world. As the rise of a fear-driven style of politics makes clear, we also share the challenge of sustaining consensus within our societies about these goals. When it comes to foreign policy, the radical change during the Bush administration was more of an exception than a rule.
What is changing, however, is the response to long-standing questions about burden-sharing and responsibility. In the seventy years since the devastation of World War II, Europe has been dependent on the support of the United States. The Obama administration’s intent to quadruple defense spending in Europe in 2017 is a vivid reminder of that legacy. While Europe has evolved into the world’s largest economic entity, it struggles with how to utilize those resources in exercising leadership on a global scale.
Taking advantage of this opportunity remains a stark challenge for leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. There are serious fissures in the European Union which may yet undermine decades of efforts to unify the continent. The looming threat of a “Brexit” under Prime Minister David Cameron threatens to unravel the threads of European integration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel—elected three consecutive times since 2005 and Europe’s strongest leader by far—is now under serious duress due to the refugee crisis.
President Obama’s presence in Great Britain and Germany this weekend may be a political boost for both. However, he will attract fewer fans today. The lessons of the past eight years have sobered Europeans and Americans alike in their evaluations of what can be expected from each other. His speech will be an attempt to rekindle that small flame from 2008, balancing his administration’s priorities and showing solidarity with Europe.
The next U.S. president will not sing a much different tune. The tone may shift, but the structure will remain the same. There is simply too much at stake to shrug off the transatlantic partnership. Europeans will be less enthusiastic and have fewer expectations that she or he will be a stellar performer—but that may be a good thing.