Has America Lost Interest in Europe?

These days, the continent is just for photo-ops and speech-making.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama speaks at a D-Day event

Let’s be brutally frank: The 60th anniversary of the NATO alliance, celebrated in April, was a bore. The American president was visibly uninterested. His European counterparts, though more accustomed to “celebrations” consisting of somnolent speeches delivered in multilingual bureaucratese, were no more enthusiastic. The affair closed with a limp American request for more troops in Afghanistan, which had almost no echo whatsoever.

Let’s be even franker: President Barack Obama’s decision to attend the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France in June was mystifying. Why the 65th? It’s not even a round number. He was not originally expected to come, and his presence meant that the guest list—the queen of England wasn’t even on it—had to be expanded at the last minute. It was nice for the veterans that he was there, particularly as he gave a terrific speech lauding the ordinary men who, “[a]t an hour of maximum danger, amid the bleakest of circumstances … found it within themselves to do something extraordinary.” But the political impact was limited, and no more troops for Afghanistan materialized then, either.

Let’s be franker still: It is impossible to escape the impression that, at least in its relations with Europe, the Obama administration is following directly in the footsteps of the Bush administration. For the past decade, the old continent has been treated as a great photo opportunity—the Obama campaign even used the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop for a speech last summer—and as an excellent place to talk about the stirring deeds of the past. But neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to consider Europe worthy of experienced ambassadors—Obama, like Bush, has sent a notable number of campaign donors—or of serious diplomacy.

As for Central Europe, it isn’t considered worthy of any diplomacy at all. Last week, the Czech prime minister was roused from his bed after midnight to be informed by the White House of a nonurgent decision many months in the making: the cancellation of the missile defense program. The Polish prime minister refused to take a similar call. But this is nothing new: The Bush White House’s original decision to place the missile shield and radar in Central Europe was taken before any Central Europeans were consulted—not at midnight, and not at midday. The official letter from the Pentagon back in 2007 arrived together with a suggested “response”: The governments in Prague and Warsaw were supposed to sign on the dotted line and send it back.

In fact, missile defense was unpopular then, and it’s unpopular now, all across Europe. Poles and Czechs favored the U.S. bases only because they would bring U.S. troops to their territory. But they favor U.S. troops on their territory only because two successive U.S. presidents have refused to invest in NATO’s Central European presence and haven’t seemed much interested in doing anything else in Europe. This has led some to fear that Americans aren’t quite so committed to the basic precepts of the NATO Treaty—an attack on one member state is an attack on all—as they used to be. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone out of her way to deny that this is the case—but at a time when Russians and others are making heavy military investments, it is a widespread perception, all the same.

All of which makes for a paradox: In Europe, President Obama is still the most popular U.S. leader in recent memory. Yet he has failed to capitalize on this popularity, in part because he has failed to use it. His only message in Europe so far—”send more troops to Afghanistan”—has been clouded by his own ambivalence about the Afghan mission. He has not tried to convince anyone that he has rethought Afghanistan, and he hasn’t come up with any other joint security tasks for the world’s largest and most powerful democracies. Just for starters, he could tell his European friends that he won’t appear in any more photographs with them unless they agree to talk about the contingency plans and NATO joint exercises that the alliance abandoned years ago.

Europeans are to blame, too, it goes without saying. The beginning of a new administration was a chance for them to make a fresh start, to bring ideas to the White House instead of waiting for the White House to speak first. Pole-axed by recession, still unable to speak with anything resembling a unified voice, Europeans remain as placid and passive about their own defense as always. And, yes, it is possible that even the most popular U.S. president in living memory can’t make them sit up and pay attention to the potential threats of energy blackmail from Russia, of a nuclear Iran, or of international terrorism in their own backyards. But it would be far more reassuring if he were at least trying.