It’s not as scary as the Middle East or as sexy as rising powers like China and India (and, sometimes, Russia, Brazil, and South Africa), but in many respects, the most important region for U.S. foreign policy in 2008 is the same as it was in 1908 or 1808 -- Europe. After all, the European Union’s almost $17 trillion gross domestic product is the largest in the world by a healthy margin. Alternatively, counted as individual countries, EU members make up five of the 10 largest economies in the world.
What's more, though, to some pundits like Robert Kagan, Europe is defined primarily by its military weakness. But the reality is that two of the top five, and four of the top 10 military spenders in the world are in Western Europe. By the same token, two of the world's eight nuclear powers and two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are in Europe. To be sure, these two are, in both cases, the United Kingdom and France. Still, that reflects that, aside from the United States itself, the only countries with real capacity to project military power at a distance are not erstwhile rivals like Russia and China or pseudo-menaces like Iran but are the U.K. and France. This, combined with America's historic ties to these powers, makes our position in the world secure. Plus, the sheer weight of the U.S. and the EU means that the U.S.-European relationship sets the tone for our bilateral relationships with other advanced democracies, including Japan, Canada, South Korea, and Australia
Over the past eight years, it has, of course, been a relationship that's deteriorated. It's become fashionable in certain pseudo-sophisticated circles to argue, counterintuitively, that the mere end of Republican rule won't turn that around. But based on discussions I had with political officials and business leaders during a recent trip to Switzerland, plus contacts stateside and abroad with officials from several different European countries over the past year, I think this is dead wrong. The reality is that things are more or less as they appear -- Europeans are genuinely and massively enthusiastic about the election of Barack Obama, and there's a tremendous opportunity to improve the relationship.
Part of the story here is that the depredations of the Bush years, far from being continuous with sources of U.S.-European friction in the past, have demonstrated how relatively minor past disagreements have been. This realization, combined with the increasing assertiveness of Russia and China and the growing influence of autocratic petrostates, has created a renewed appreciation for how nice it is for the two richest and most powerful blocs on the planet to share a basic set of values. Unfortunately, however, just as this was unfolding, the Bush administration implemented policies that called into question whether we really do share those values. That's part of the reason it's so crucial that an Obama administration move swiftly and decisively to implement the president-elect's pledges to close down the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and end torture. The absence of torture and arbitrary detention are the hallmarks of a liberal society, and disavowing them would draw a clear line in the sand between the American future and both the Bush years and the world's tyrannies.
Beyond that, a simple measure of common courtesy would go a long way. Most Americans don't realize the sheer volume of petty bullshit (no other word is adequate) to which European governments and publics have been subjected over the past eight years. Bush, for example, declined to send Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero a congratulatory message upon his election in 2004 (Zapatero did get one after his re-election in March 2008) and has perversely refused to hold a one-on-one meeting with him out of pique at Zapatero's opposition to the Iraq War. Donald Rumsfeld pointlessly deepened U.S.-European divisions over Iraq by dismissing the governments that opposed the war as "Old Europe."
Turning this sort of thing around will require little more than common sense and basic decency. Friends disagree but do so in a friendly manner. U.S. ambassadors to Europe are normally donors and political supporters of the president rather than professional diplomats. But it shouldn't take a career in the foreign service to realize that bringing up the virtues of the Iraq War, as I saw Ambassador Peter Conway do at a dinner in Switzerland two weeks ago, in irrelevant contexts isn't going to win you any friends.
It's true, as the skeptics say, that none of this guarantees progress on what's probably the key American "ask" at this point -- our desire for European governments to send more forces to Afghanistan and/or relax restrictions on the activities of forces currently in the field. But what improved U.S. standing in Europe will do is transform the politics of the situation. At the moment, even those European political leaders who agree on the merits of the American perspective are terrified to say so. The combination of Bush's toxic unpopularity and the sense that help given to the U.S. in Afghanistan would, in effect, be assistance for what's widely viewed as a criminal enterprise in Iraq makes it a nonstarter. A new administration and a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq would clear the air. And steps to show that Europe's high hopes for Obama in terms of basic human rights, diplomatic courtesy, and engagement with issues like climate change would allow Obama to make his case to Europe's people and turn public opinion around. At a time when the United States is militarily and financially exhausted, but also desperate for a renewed approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, that's change we need.