Hope may be replaced with deception

Centre européen de Sciences Po

In France, like in other EU member states, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has been warmly welcomed. French President Nicolas Sarkozy in his letter of congratulations to Obama informed him of the immense hope in France, Europe and beyond: “the hope of an open America, characterized by solidarity and strength that will once again lead the way, with its partners, through the power of its example and the adherence to its principles”.[1] According to philosopher André Glucksman, this hope even led European public opinion to overlook the more inconvenient sides of Barack Obama. Europeans, he thinks, have delegated to him the task of looking after the woes of the world and the challenges of the near future.[2] According to Ezra Suleiman, political science Professor, they are expecting too much and this hope may be replaced with deception.[3]
First priority: reinforcing multilateralism
Cooperation is the keyword of French observers regarding US-EU relations. On climate change, peacekeeping in the Middle East, the nuclear question in Iran, or relations with Russia, Europeans hope that Obama will change US attitudes and put an end to unilateralism.[4] However, many experts remain lucid about these expectations. The former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hubert Védrine, admits that Europeans have an opportunity because every change in US administration opens a window for discussions.[5] Furthermore, the new administration will certainly not be as unilateralist as its predecessor. But people may be disappointed if they believe that the United States will now decide things collectively. According to Benoît Chevalier, Professor at Sciences Po, “There is no do-gooder approach to wait from Obama, who will defend US interests like any other president”.[6] And this statement concerns different policies on which Europeans are expecting more cooperation with the United States.
Second priority: diplomacy and global order
On many international issues, EU member states were reluctant to follow US policy. “Le Monde” reminds in its editorial that the European troika in charge of negotiations with Iran on the nuclear question hardly managed to define a clear strategy, between its willingness to help Iran to build its own civilian nuclear industry (on the condition that Iran abandon its uranium enrichment program), and its readiness to impose sanctions in the event of a refusal. This situation was also the consequence of European fear that the US would respond to an Iran threat with military action. Washington will soon join the negotiations. As Obama repeatedly insisted on the need for the US to revive diplomatic relations with Teheran, European expectations are high on this issue.[7] Another test for transatlantic relations, “Le Monde” argues, will be Afghanistan. As Obama has indicated it to be pivotal in the struggle against terrorism, he intends to send in more troops but he is expecting Europe to do the same. The question is whether Europeans will be ready to follow the new president in this direction.[8]
Third priority: trade relations in a context of economic crisis
Economic and trade relations will also be a key issue for transatlantic relations. Many experts observe that the financial and economic crisis could lead to more protectionism from both sides of the Atlantic. Hubert Védrine reminds that Obama voted against all the last free trade agreements.[9] He thinks that the US will not turn inwards, but it will surely try to protect its national industries against Asian competition. According to Dominique Moïsi from IFRI “French Institute for International Relations”, state aids to national industry leaders could destabilise international cooperation, just like the tariffs barriers did in the past.[10]
Climate change and the future of the Kyoto Protocol
Another crucial issue for EU-US relations is climate change policy. According to French environment and energy expert Pierre Radanne, the United States will be back into climate negotiations after the election of Obama.[11] This raises the issue of leadership at the international level. Brice Lalonde, former Minister for the Environment and now French ambassador for climate change, assumes that because of the EU being self-centred with its energy climate package, leadership failed in Poznan, for the 14th UN Conference on Climate.[12] Noëlle Lenoir, former Minister for European Affairs, even fears that whereas European member states seem to renounce to ambitious targets in this sector, there is a high risk that the United States will take its leadership and impose its norms and technologies on the rest of the world.[13]
Florence Autret, a French journalist, summarised the upcoming challenges for transatlantic relations. According to her, on all these issues (diplomacy, economy or environment) the election of Barack Obama will place Europe face to face with its own responsibilities.[14]

[1] Letter of congratulations from President Nicolas Sarkozy to President-elect Barack Obama, 05 November 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).

[2] Le Figaro, 12 November 2008.

[3] Le Nouvel Observateur, 06 November 2008.

[4] AFP, 06 November 2008.

[5] Interview, Les Echos, 06 November 2008.

[6] Le Nouvel Observateur, 05 November 2008.

[7] Le Monde, 19 November 2008.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Védrine H., op. cit.

[10] Les Echos, 31 December 2008.

[11] Radanne P., Note pour la fondation Terra Nova, 03 December 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).

[12] Libération, 15 December 2008.

[13] Lenoir N., “Le leadership européen sur le climat a des chances d’être dépassé par les Etats-Unis”, Le Cercle des Européens, 12 November 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).

[14] Interview, Touteleurope.fr, 05 November 2008, available at: (last access: 26 February 2009).