Obama’s Farewell Tour

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.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Jackson Janes

President of AICGS

Jackson Janes is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics from 2005-2010.

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Atlantic Council of the United States. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee , Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS), the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association, and the American Bundestag Intern Network (ABIN) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Board of the German American Fulbright Commission and serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington DC.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Education:
Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Expertise:
Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.

Parke Nicholson

Parke Nicholson was previously the Senior Research Associate at AICGS. He was selected to participate in the Munich Young Leaders 2016 program at the 52nd Munich Security Conference. Previously, he worked at the Center for the National Interest and the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2008, he served on the foreign policy staff at Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters. He has also worked abroad in Austria and Germany: in 2005 through the Fulbright Program in Klagenfurt and in 2010-2011 as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow working in the German Foreign Office for the Coordinator of Transatlantic Cooperation and for Daimler AG’s Political Intelligence unit in Stuttgart.

Parke has recently published in Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, The Baltimore Sun, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He received his MA in International Relations from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University and a BA in History and Violin Performance at The College of Wooster in Ohio.