SLIGO, Ireland — President Obama this week will visit a European continent deeply worried about its economy, the worsening conflict in Syria and the uncertain direction of American leadership abroad in the fifth year of his administration.
As he arrives Monday in Northern Ireland for his first trip to Europe in two years, Obama will be confronting the diplomatic fallout from his actions and inaction on some of the most urgent concerns of his European counterparts.
His long delay in more aggressively supporting Syria’s beleaguered opposition forces — a move that his administration announced in the form of expanded military aid on the eve of his visit here — has frustrated the leaders of France and Germany. The recent disclosure of the National Security Agency’s telephone and Internet surveillance has angered many European politicians, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he will see on both stops of his three-day visit.
And the expansion throughout his term of drone warfare has disillusioned a once-adoring European public — and, to a lesser degree, its more pragmatic political leaders. Reflecting that disappointment, the French newspaper Le Monde headlined an article this month about the NSA’s surveillance programs: “George W. Obama and National Security.”
“People in Europe were looking for a political redeemer,” said Jan Techau, the director of the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Those expectations, of course, were greatly exaggerated. Soon it became clear, as it is now, that he is simply an American president with all of the ugly power politics that the position involves.”
Nowhere has Obama been as popular as he once was in Europe, a collection of traditional U.S. allies viewed by the George W. Bush administration as more hindrance than help on the security challenges of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.
Obama promised something different as a candidate in 2008, when his ecstatic reception in Europe signaled the international demand for a new style of U.S. leadership. He pledged to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, end the harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects and conclude the U.S. war in Iraq, which had alienated many European allies.
Even though Obama has fulfilled the last two of those promises, the glow surrounding his presidency in Europe has faded as he arrives Monday to speak in Belfast, a seaside city once known as a cauldron of sectarian conflict that is now prospering under a U.S.-brokered peace agreement.
Obama — who will also return to address the German capital, which received him rapturously as a candidate — once counted on his popular luster abroad to help drive his policy ambitions. But that shine has dimmed in Europe because of what analysts say is a perception of tepid leadership and a troubling counterterrorism approach that recalls the excesses of the previous administration.
A Gallup poll published in March showed that the public approval of U.S. leadership in Europe has dropped 11 percentage points since Obama’s first year in office, to 36 percent, although it is still far higher than it was during the Bush administration’s final year.
The poll showed that half the decline occurred over the past year, when Obama, preoccupied with his reelection campaign, focused far more on domestic politics and the European economy deteriorated. In such countries as France and Spain, less than half the public approves of U.S. leadership in Europe.
His visit is designed in part to address that sense of neglect. The centerpiece of his three-day swing is the Group of Eight meeting, to be held at a resort in Northern Ireland, where the ailing European economy will shape much of the discussion.
The tourist destination at Lough Erne, not far from this Irish city where the White House press corps is staying, was chosen in part to showcase the progress Northern Ireland has made in the past 15 years of peace. Obama is scheduled to travel there Monday after his morning speech along Belfast’s waterfront, a few hours’ drive to the east.
Europe’s economic recovery has been uneven. Much of the continent remains in recession, something Obama has frequently cited to explain the slow U.S. climb back from the most severe economic crisis in decades.
Austerity measures, driven by German concerns about inflation and rising deficit spending by a number of European nations in recent years, have restrained economic growth while failing to resolve the heavy public debt dragging economies in France, Italy and other G-8 powers, which together account for roughly half of the world’s economic activity.
But Merkel’s push for fiscal austerity now has a response in Asia, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has embarked on an ambitious program of government stimulus to revive the economy. “Abenomics,” as his mix of monetary and fiscal policies is known, will mark one edge of the global economic debate that has defined each of Obama’s G-8 meetings.
“The context for that discussion has changed a lot over the past year,” Caroline Atkinson, the senior director for international economic issues at the National Security Council, said last week, citing the inconsistent recovery across Europe and the steady, if slow, U.S. recovery, which continues to struggle with unemployment. “We expect that G-8 leaders will express a consensus that growth and jobs are a top priority.”
Expanding trade, particularly between the United States and the 27-nation European Union in the form of a new trade agreement, will be a key topic.
Complicating the discussion, though, will be the recent disclosure of the NSA’s broad data-collection effort, carried out with the cooperation of major U.S. telecommunications and Internet companies and affecting millions of Europeans who use those services.
Already concerned about how and where data is stored and protected, European leaders have bristled over the NSA program, raising the prospect of restrictions on the flow of information, data-storage rules and new protections for intellectual property as part of any new trade agreement.
Western diplomats say the worsening war in Syria — and a collective international response — will dominate the summit’s security discussions.
The Obama administration recently announced, after weeks of study, that it agreed with French and British assessments that forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons “multiple times” over the past year.
The disclosure, designed in part to blunt some of the expected criticism during this trip of Obama’s perceived passivity on Syria, clarified that Assad had crossed the U.S. president’s “red line.” The administration has decided to directly arm Syria’s rebel forces, at this stage with light arms and ammunition.
Obama’s decision to step onto Syria’s battlefield was a tacit acknowledgment that the opposition is losing the two-year-old conflict, which has killed an estimated 93,000 people. When Obama first said that Assad had lost the legitimacy to govern, 2,000 Syrians had died.
The new situation on the ground has alarmed the administration and its European allies, whose leaders do not think a proposed peace conference in Geneva in the near future could achieve a favorable outcome with Syria’s rebels losing to Assad. Obama administration officials have said Assad cannot remain in office under any peace agreement, something he is unlikely to agree to while winning the war.
Obama is scheduled to meet Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government has challenged U.S. and European claims that Assad has used chemical weapons. Putin’s government, like Iran’s, is supporting Assad.
But Putin has also endorsed the idea of the Geneva peace conference, an issue Obama will discuss with him. Administration officials say Obama will appeal to Russian strategic interests in making the case that for the war to end, Assad must go.
“They don’t want to see a downward spiral, they don’t want to see a chaotic and unstable situation in the region, they don’t want to see extremist elements gaining a foothold in Syria,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “The point that we’ve made to Russia is that the current course, in which Assad has not been appropriately pressured to step down from power by those who continue to support him in the international community, is bringing about those very outcomes.”
After the two-day summit, Obama will make his first visit as president to Berlin, where he will meet with Merkel, one of the few G-8 leaders whose tenure has spanned his own.
But the main event will be his speech Wednesday at the Brandenberg Gate, marking the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s speech of solidarity to a then-divided and besieged Berlin. Unlike Kennedy, who addressed West Berlin with the wall as his backdrop, Obama will speak from the eastern side of the gate to highlight the end of old divisions.
Rhodes said Obama will “hit on broad themes in that speech associated with the shared history of the transatlantic alliance,” urging Europeans to apply that tradition of cooperation to the challenges of nuclear nonproliferation, economic development, human rights abuses and shared security threats.
This will be Obama’s first visit to Berlin since his 2008 stop there as a presidential candidate, when he drew 200,000 people to his open-air speech near the Victory Column in Tiergarten Park. The extraordinary turnout in a foreign country prompted Obama’s Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), to call the speech a “premature victory lap.”
German leaders and many analysts predict another big audience for Obama’s address but one that, unlike the first, may include a few signs of disenchantment with a president who, after less than a year in office, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic promise.