How Obama Lost Friends in Europe and Influence Globally
Obama Speech
Printer-friendly versionPDF version
a a
 
Type Size: Small
The Fiscal Times
July 14, 2014

Bad comes to worse in the Obama administration’s ties with Europe. Obama’s trans-Atlantic crisis is less dramatic than his other foreign policy failures: Syria, Egypt, the Mideast, China. But the implications of this debacle could prove profoundly significant—politically and diplomatically, for sure, but also by way of international trade and investment.

It is tempting to say President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are simply an accident-prone duo given to pratfalls—burlesque on the way to slapstick—on the international stage. They are. It is tempting to say they inherited a set of policies and institutions with a forward inertia whose course no single administration can alter. They did.

Related: Why The United States Spies on Germany

But we cannot leave it there. In the European case, there was plenty Washington could have done to avoid the mess now in full flower as a result of botched policies across questions ranging from intelligence gathering to financial fines to Ukraine.

It is always hard to see one’s moment in historical terms. But ours could mark a turn in relations that distances the U.S. from the other industrial democracies such that the “Third Way” long spoken of among some Europeans gradually becomes a reality.

Le Carré could not match new revelations of American espionage in Germany. Two Germans are now under arrest on suspicion of spying for the CIA—one reporting on the parliamentary investigation into the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping as revealed by Edward Snowden last year. The CIA’s Berlin station chief was just expelled, and reports suggest that the parliamentary spy’s work for the Americans included passing intelligence—presumably false—to the Russians.

Germans are reeling, while American officials appear oblivious to the moment’s gravity. “At some point, the ‘no comment’ will not be enough,” Norbert Röttgen, who leads a Bundestag committee that rushed to Washington last week, told The New York Times.

I can think of two names for this. One is “outmoded arrogance.” The other is “asleep at the wheel.” Whatever the moniker, some measure of incompetence lies behind it.

Related: Amid Spy Scandal, Kerry Calls Germany ‘Great Friend’

Instantly after Berlin revealed the first arrest, respected members of the American intelligence community asserted that, in cost-benefit terms alone, there is little point in this kind of Cold War-era spying on Germany. Factor in the political price now to be exacted, and Obama ought to have recognized the foolishness of fighting the last war as soon as Snowden told us a year ago that the NSA tapped Chancellor Merkel’s telephone.

In a similar vein, consider the gang-up against BNP Paribas late last month, when France’s largest bank (of which the government owns a piece) agreed to pay $8.9 billion in fines to settle charges that it did business in countries the U.S. sanctions. The Justice Department, the Fed, Treasury, the Manhattan DA, and the New York financial regulator all insisted on a piece of this action.

Institutions should be punished for crimes, of course. But no one asked the obvious question. BNP broke no European laws. Is extending a DA’s powers across an ocean the best way at this? Or, do Europeans have a case when they charge that this is judicial overreach—another badly timed display of American arrogance?

The outcome suggests an answer. At a business conference in Aix-en-Provence last week, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin cited the BNP case when he called for a “rebalancing” of the currencies used in global trade. With vociferous support from the top executives in attendance, he effectively made common cause with emerging nations such as China saying it is time to reduce American influence by replacing the dollar as the world economic currency.

Pretty deep water for a Manhattan prosecutor to swim in, you have to say.

Related: How Obama Lost Ukraine in a Few Stupid Steps

The Obama-Kerry Show worsens by the week in Ukraine. This column recently considered Treasury’s “stealth sanctions” against Russia—off-the-books penalties imposed over the EU’s opposition. Well-placed sources in Paris now tell me that it was at Washington’s urging that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko recently ignored the EU’s request to extend a ceasefire and avoid another military campaign in eastern Ukraine. This campaign unfolds as we speak.

The next chance to widen the trans-Atlantic rift is in Vienna, where the major European powers, the U.S., Russia, and China (the “P5 + 1”) are to meet Iranian officials this week to continue talks on a nuclear settlement. The Europeans have all along wanted a deal more than Washington; with a July 20 deadline, the danger of a schism is likely to increase.

The chance after that is the wide-ranging trade pact Washington is now negotiating with the EU. Given the heavy emphasis it places on control over cyberspace, this thing has less chance now than ever of getting through European legislatures. Push too hard in the face of resistance at the national level, where it is certain to arise, and Washington will rip yet another hole in its European ties.

Each of these cases deserves consideration in its own right. View them together and you find a common failure on this administration’s part.

Related: How Europe and Obama Lost Leverage with Putin

The continent that gave the world de Gaulle was restive with the sheer magnitude of American power all through the Cold War years. It took shelter under the American umbrella, yes; hypocritically or otherwise, it resented the loud American voice and its own low decibels.

If any administration of any stripe is to succeed in Europe now, it must understand that this underlying sentiment persists. It must listen and see in ways no administration found necessary during the Cold War.

The failure Obama and Kerry share in this respect is likely to bear bitter fruit. The German relationship is more or less trashed for the rest of Obama’s second term, in my view. France, with a Socialist president, has been surprisingly loyal to Washington, but there is nothing permanent here.

No guns, but many casualties in this theater of operations.

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times:

A correspondent, editor and critic for more than 30 years, mostly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, Patrick Smith has also lectured in journalism and media studies. He is the author of five books.