[Obama] is the rare president who seems at times to resent indispensability, rather than embrace it. “Free riders aggravate me,” he told me. Recently, Obama warned that Great Britain would no longer be able to claim a “special relationship” with the United States if it did not commit to spending at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. “You have to pay your fair share,” Obama told David Cameron, who subsequently met the 2 percent threshold.
Washington pushed Europeans to put harsh sanctions on Iran, but the United States itself had little leverage on the Iranian economy, having had virtually no trade with the country since 1979. In many ways, it was the European choice to back sanctions that made them so effective —and it was the Europeans who bore many of the costs.
There is, as Goldberg tells us, just about no foreign leader the president respects more than Angela Merkel. Nor is there one who has done more to help him. (Were it not for Merkel’s support on sanctions against Russia, Obama’s Ukraine policy would barely exist.) No European leader has tried harder to articulate a tolerant, Obama-style approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. Nor has anyone paid a greater price for doing so. Merkel faces both the possible end of her political career and the possible collapse of the European Union.White House aides acknowledge the problem. “If Europe has a 2016 anything like 2015,” one of them has told me, “there won’t be much of Europe left to talk about.” So what has the leader whom Obama respects most, who has done the most for him, who has set out a vision most like his, and who has had the most trouble implementing it, gotten from him in return? The U.S. has admitted a trickle of refugees, NATO-member navies have begun to regulate the migrant flow in Greek and Turkish waters, the Pentagon continues to study the problem of a “safe zone” in Syria — and the White House continues to express doubts about it. Measured against the “existential” crisis facing America’s most important allies, this isn’t much.
So as the president
apologizes for some of the things he said out loud to Goldberg wraps up his Europe trip, remember that both sides of the Atlantic have legitimate gripes. For as long as the United States has complained about European shirking on defense spending, Europeans have had to bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to Western economic statecraft.