The US Presidential election will be won and lost on the domestic economy, so Mitt Romney’s recent trip to three capitals –London, Jerusalem and Warsaw—provided some distraction in the summer lead-up to the party conventions and the start of the real campaign season in the fall. His itinerary gave the presumptive Republican candidate an opportunity to profile himself to the American electorate: as a successful executive who had organized the Salt Lake City Olympics, as a firm supporter of Israel (in contrast to President Obama who has refrained from visiting there while in office), and as an advocate of the liberty of Eastern Europe. The warm support from Lech Walesa this summer will serve him well in the ballot boxes of western Pennsylvania in November.
Yet Romney is not the first American presidential candidate to campaign through European capitals, and his travels abroad invite a comparison with Barack Obama’s tour just four years ago, especially the main event, the speech at the Victory Column in Berlin in front of an enormous crowd of 200, 000 or more. That demonstration of Obama’s charisma and popularity in Europe certainly strengthened his credibility among American voters, frustrated with the apparent fraying of the Atlantic alliance during the administration of George W. Bush. Obama promised to calm the waters, restore old friendships and build a robust cooperation between the US and Europe.
The Romney visit is a chance to reevaluate the Obama visit and ask: has Obama fulfilled the hope to change the trans-Atlantic divide?
The tone no doubt has changed. The animosity once directed regularly toward the Bush administration is a thing of the past. American leaders do not face angry demonstrations when they travel abroad (although when Secretary of State Clinton recently visited Egypt, she encountered bitter protests from Coptic Christians, fearing that the US will sell them out to the Islamist regime). Yet while Obama’s credibility—as the not-Bush—led to a ratcheting down of anti-American sentiment, the trans-Atlantic relationship has done well in the past four years mainly because it has done so little: The Obama White House has elicited European support for no major initiative whatsoever—hardly a success story.
In terms of international security, Europe and America cooperated in the international coalition Afghanistan, but ISAF had been organized by the Bush administration. In the Berlin speech, candidate Obama actually insisted on the need to “renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan.” Under Obama, ISAF fought on, but Europeans never matched the American surge proportionally, and when Obama set a date for a US withdrawal, the Europeans reasonably began to rush for the exits. Today a resurgent Taliban, increased violence and endemic corruption are ravaging Afghanistan, and the imminent western retreat will leave chaos in its wake. Obama’s Berlin promise to defend western security in Afghanistan has been broken.
In terms of economic security, trans-Atlantic cooperation has been even less successful. In the face of the travails of the Eurozone—sovereign debt, insolvent banks, fiscal instability and the crying need for reform of labor markets and the social state—the absence of an American presence is stunning. Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner’s visits are embarrassing for their inconsequentiality; when he recently barged in on German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s summer vacation on the island of Sylt, the only result was a joint statement of no substance. In the crisis of the Eurozone, key US allies, especially France and Germany, are pulling in opposite directions, but President Obama—despite all his charisma and political capital that was on display at the Berlin speech—has chosen not to try to play a role as an honest broker. Either he has figured out that he in fact has no credibility in Europe, or he has decided that, despite the homily at the Victory Column, Europe does not matter to him. It turns out that he fixed the trans-Atlantic problem primarily by pivoting to Asia—not that there’s been much success there either.
In fact, the Obama administration has been less engaged in Europe than any US President in living memory. Against that backdrop, Romney’s itinerary, especially the Poland visit, represents a commitment of a different order and a stronger moral fiber, a recognition of the accomplishments and potentials of what Donald Rumsfeld once named “new Europe.” No wonder the old European press is so unhappy with him.