“The Hour of Europe” Tolls Again

But are European politicians up to the task?

Barack Obama in Germany

“This is the hour of Europe.”

Way back in 1991, when an otherwise forgettable foreign minister of Luxembourg infamously pronounced that sentence, it seemed to portend great things. It meant that in the post-Cold War world, Europeans, not Americans, would resolve the conflicts that were about to become the Bosnian war—and maybe a lot of other things, too. He was wrong. Those Balkan conflicts were eventually “resolved,” up to a point, not by Europe but by the United States and NATO. European influence in Washington dwindled—and then dwindled further during the Bush administration, which mostly treated the very idea of Europe as a kind of pointless distraction.

Fast-forward to 2008: The Bush administration is discredited, leaving a wide, gaping hole where America’s Europe policy (or absence of policy) used to be. Once again, an opportunity looms: As a friend in Washington puts it, “three Mongolians and a camel” could have an impact on whichever president takes over in January, so desperate will any new administration be for new ideas, for new policies, for “change.”

In a very real sense, 2009, not 1992, truly will be the “hour of Europe.” By that, I mean that if the chancellor of Germany, the prime minister of Great Britain, and the president of France—backed by their counterparts in southern Europe, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia—were to walk into the White House on Jan. 21 and propose serious, realistic, new contributions to, say, the war in Afghanistan, the reconstruction of Iraq, the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and perhaps even climate change, the White House would listen.

Or perhaps I should put it more strongly: Not only would the White House listen, the new administration, Democratic or Republican, would immediately offer the Europeans the “leadership” and “partnership” they so often say they desire. Between the sinking housing market and the soaring price of food, the high price of fuel and low growth, the new president is going to have so much on his plate that a group of Europeans who appear from across the Atlantic announcing, say, a plan to fix southern Afghanistan would be welcomed with open arms. In fact, I’ll wager I could find a dozen future members of either administration who would roll out the red carpet and greet them like envoys of a fellow superpower if the Europeans so desired.

Yet at the same time, I’d also wager that I could not find a dozen current members of any European government who have even thought about coming up with any ideas at all. This is the hour of Europe—but do the Europeans even know it?

Judging by the press and the popular reaction to Barack Obama’s visit there last week, they don’t. Just about every account of the speech noted the dearth of applause for its single line encouraging European participation in world events. “America cannot do this alone. … The Afghan people need our troops and your troops” was not a crowd pleaser. Neither was “We can join in a new and global partnership” to fight terrorism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, spoke tartly of “the limits” of Germany’s contributions to the Afghan cause, making it clear she didn’t favor such upbeat talk, while another senior German official  worried that his colleagues “will have trouble meeting [Obama’s] demand to assume more common responsibility.”

In a narrow sense, their reserve is understandable: Nobody is going to break new ground with a visiting presidential candidate. Still, the public reactions to Obama struck me as significant because they match private opinions I’ve been hearing for months. “Nobody has thought about this yet,” said one European diplomat when I asked what plans might be presented to the new administration. The truth, revealed by the brief Obama visit, is that few European statesmen look on changes in Washington as an opportunity to propose something new. Most simply feel relief that Bush will be gone, coupled with anxiety about what is to come next.

And as the election gets closer, the anxiety will grow. In a strange sense, Bush’s catastrophic diplomacy was a gift to Europe’s politicians. “Bush allowed them to explain away radical Islam as an understandable, even legitimate, response to the hypocrisies and iniquities of American policy,” wrote one British columnist this week. Bush also allowed them to blame American “unilateralism” for their own lack of initiative, to use bad American diplomacy as an excuse for doing nothing.

No wonder the adulation of Obama was tempered by a note of unease. What with one presidential candidate talking of “global partnership” and the other reminding Americans that “the United States did not single-handedly win the Cold War,” the potential for the renewal of the trans-Atlantic alliance is terrifyingly real—and the election isn’t even over.