Why Now?
President Obama is in Europe next week, but given the news of the current week, not many have been talking about this trip. In fact, the only direct reference to Europe these days in Washington has been the arrest of a certain French personality in New York. So what is the president’s ninth trip to Europe all about and why is it happening now?

The main anchor for the trip is the annual meeting of the G8 in Deauville, France – where the president is going to get a mountain of questions and commentary about the prominent case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former president of the IMF who is now fighting charges of sexual harassment in New York. Amidst all the concerns about the future of the euro and sovereign debt in the European Union, he will not be able to prevent hoards of journalists asking about this juicy story no matter where he goes.

Starting in the West…
But the sequence and the timing of the trip – first to Ireland, then to London with a visit at Buckingham Palace, then on to the G8 followed by a quick flight to Warsaw to visit with the Poles – leave some guessing about what is supposed to come out of the week. Visiting Ireland is bound to get the president some cheering crowds in a place where the Irish could use some pep talks, especially given their financial woes. But it is hard to see much more than a gesture of mutual friendship and some encouragement emerging from sharing a pint of Guinness along the River Liffey. The two days in London will be complete with a royal fanfare dinner at Buckingham Palace with the Queen, allowing Obama to generate some more star power back home. Two days is a long patch of time to devote to the UK, so there will be more to the exchange than underlining the “special” relationship again, especially after the unpleasantness about the BP oil leak. But there is clearly a lot to discuss with Prime Minister Cameron and his team concerning the Middle East, Afghanistan, Libya, and any number of other transatlantic issues.

Over on the other side of the English Channel at the G8, there will be plenty of ideas exchanged for overcoming the constant struggle with the financial challenges facing all the G8 members. More importantly, however, there is going to be a lot of talk about who might be a good candidate to take over the IMF, an issue that Obama will have to walk a tightrope on due to the U.S.’ significant vote influence. By not immediately endorsing a European candidate to take over for Strauss-Kahn and remaining open to a new IMF chief from India, Brazil, or Turkey, Obama ruffled some feathers and he will have to be very delicate about the succession subject.

… and Finishing in the East
Other significant issues remain, though, as evidence by the chances for one-on-one face time with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev over the status of the START treaty. And in Warsaw there will be talk about the upcoming Polish presidency of the EU at a time when the EU is floundering around the future of the euro – which the Poles do not yet use. And Prime Minister Donald Tusk will also want to talk to the president about complaints regarding visas for Poles wishing to visit the U.S.

The elephant in the room behind all of these meetings, however, remains the Middle East and the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions. Even though NATO has taken the lead – at least in name – in Libya, the lack of clarity over what the West is trying to accomplish there combines with increasing tension in Syria to remind the leaders that there is a ways to go in establishing stability in the Middle East. As Europe looks to the U.S. for some leadership on these issues, the pressure on Obama increases, and he will surely have more than a few discussions about this during his trip.

Looking Good for Domestic Audiences
But still, one wonders why the timing for this can be more than just having found a few days to get away from the White House. Of course, there are also myriad political reasons for the trip at this time, especially as the 2012 election campaign is slowly picking up steam. Following a successful foray into Pakistan to get a wanted man in the form of Osama bin Laden, President Obama can look very presidential among his global peers – and that will serve him well back home. Additionally, Obama just delivered a major speech on his vision of finding a solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it can be expected that the speech was better received in Europe than it was in Jerusalem or Ramallah. Gaining some global support for the parameters he laid out in the speech – considering the mixed reaction to date – is probably pretty attractive for Obama at this point.

Most of this agenda is not urgent, and the G8 meeting is not necessarily one of the President’s favorite ways to spend time outside of Washington. But even if the meetings don’t solve any immediate problems, they can add some chemistry to the discussions between these leaders, all of which are facing some serious domestic challenges at home. Both Obama and Sarkozy are facing elections next year, and some combination of Medvedev and Vladimir Putin will also be on the ballot in Russia in 2012. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is not up for reelection, but he continues to be dogged with the fallout from Fukushima, making his position treacherous. The centrifugal forces of these domestic concerns are going to get stronger even as the global challenges the leaders face increase in intensity. Finding some common ground may be useful, if for no other reason that it helps the politicians look like they can solve problems – a rare status enjoyed these days.

What Merkel Can Bring
Chancellor Merkel will of course be a key player for the president as always in these G8 meetings and they will certainly have time to discuss what she thinks about the euro crisis. Yet it is also probable that she would talk to the president about the recent visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Berlin. Given the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem, particularly after the president’s speech this week, she may have some additional thoughts about how to manage the upcoming challenge of the Palestinian effort to push a resolution through the UN General Assembly in September calling for recognizing a Palestinian state. As a member of the Security Council, Germany can play a key role in trying to steer through those political waters, which can be an opportunity to smooth over some frustrations that came out of the Libya vote abstention. Germany enjoys some leverage in Jerusalem and Merkel has even been trying to pressure Netanyahu into giving ground on negotiations with the Palestinians, so this could be an area of strong cooperation.

Merkel will be in Washington on June 7 for a day of being feted by the president, including a state dinner for the first time for the Chancellor. Because the roles will be reversed at that point and the spotlight will be on her, it is certain that she will be carefully evaluating what the exchanges in Deauville generate and what she can bring to Washington in two weeks. Given the laundry list of issues that the transatlantic partners need to work together on, the opportunities coming out of all this face time should not be wasted.

All in all, this quick trip offers the president a chance to touch base, touch on some issues without solving any, and look like a world leader. Maybe that is enough for five days, despite the long agenda. With some luck with the European weather, it might also provide him some relief from the stormy political climate in Washington, DC.


This essay appeared in the May 20, 2011, AICGS Advisor.