A European Honeymoon

By Annette Heuser
Thursday, July 24, 2008; 12:00 AM

No American politician can go wrong these days by visiting the good old European allies in their capitals. So it's not surprising that Sen. Barack Obama's current tour features stops in London, Paris and, today, Berlin.

For Obama, this part of the trip serves first and foremost as a traditional consultation with allies. It will also provide good photo-ops for the folks back home, with the historic and picturesque European backdrops, huge crowds and meetings with heads of state and government. For Europe, the trip could serve as much more: It is an opportunity to work together. If Obama is the next president, European leaders will need to engage his ideas and determine how best to work with him.

The senator will certainly get an overwhelming, if not hysterical, reception from Europeans. The Germans in particular have developed a new tradition for frenetic welcomes; Pope Benedict and the Dalai Lama have been recent recipients, and Barack Obama will now join them. It's also true, of course, that Europeans will be pleased to greet any potential successor to President Bush, who has been widely unpopular in most European countries for most of his term of office.

Obama's euphoric reception, however, may be short -- a honeymoon before the wedding, assuming that he makes it to the altar of the presidency.

As people on both sides of the ocean recognize, we are faced with a wide range of global challenges -- including the catastrophic threats of nuclear and biological weapons, which Obama identified last week. The question is how Europeans want to influence his approach to these issues.

From Obama's standpoint, the importance of this visit is clear. If he wins the presidency, he will have already dispensed with the obligatory introductory meetings with Europe's main power brokers -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He can get right to work, having made the traditionally post-inaugural affirmations of trans-Atlantic harmony and unconditional friendship. The new president won't have time for another goodwill tour anyway. And the pre-election get-togethers will make any post-election arm twisting easier.

Obama can also use his talks with European leaders, and his public pronouncements, to test the waters for his ideas to address some of the challenges that any new president will face. Will the Europeans assume more responsibility in Iraq if an Obama administration withdraws U.S. troops in 16 months to expand the American military presence in Afghanistan? Will unconditional talks with Iran on that country's nuclear activities receive European support? Are the Europeans ready to develop a post-Kyoto framework?

Finally, the senator can begin to revive America's tarnished reputation. Many Europeans have become disenchanted with U.S. foreign and domestic policies under the current administration. Obama can try to associate his image as a driver for change and motor for innovation with the image of his nation.

The risk for Europe is also clear: While Obama forges ahead with his agenda, many on the continent are navel-gazing in the aftermath of the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. America's allies are occupied with determining how to advance their own process of unity, not with engaging the man who could be the next leader of the world's only superpower.

Europe will do itself a disservice if it misses another opportunity to forge a more cohesive, unified foreign policy. The continent could well heed Benjamin Franklin's warning to the American colonies more than two centuries ago: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately."

Trans-Atlantic relations have entered a new phase. Our historical links and common values unquestionably remain important, but the priority is increasingly on straightforward political pragmatism. This could well portend a quick honeymoon. A President Obama has foreign-policy goals, in particular on Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, that are urgent and politically ambitious. Disagreements with Europe on policy toward these or other hotspots around the world could rapidly emerge. In that case, this week's honeymoon could herald a rocky marriage.

The writer is executive director of the Bertelsmann Foundation.

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