EU must engage new US-Presidency to deal with Bush inheritance

Institute for Strategic and International Studies
The year 2009 is certainly a year of great uncertainties regarding the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’, particularly when this will be coupled with the unknown impact of the current financial and economic crisis, that seems to many more structural than simply a cyclical recession. But it may also be a year of opportunities. It will certainly be a year of great expectations of change in transatlantic relations and even in global politics with the arrival of President Obama at the White House.[1] The combination of these factors seems to point to 2009 as a year of both great opportunities and great challenges in terms of the future of the EU and of global governance.
The Portuguese point of view tends to be generically very positive regarding the opportunities opened by the election of Barack Obama in tune with the polls that show his exceptional popularity throughout Europe and globally. The government has expressed in wishes that the longstanding alliance with the US will be reaffirmed and enhanced with the new presidency. In fact, Portugal took the lead in raising publicly the question of European states receiving former prisoners of Guantanamo – and offering to do so – as a concrete way of showing its willingness to help the new US President in solving some of the most complex aspects of the inheritance of George W. Bush.[2] At the level of the government, therefore, the willingness to cooperate with the new US President is clear, both as a result of the traditional strategic priorities of Portuguese defence and foreign policy, but also through a Europeanising of these relations. The current Portuguese government clearly believes that its membership in the EU is an important way of improving its relations with Washington and acts accordingly.
However, despite this almost universal sympathy, from Communist Nobel Laureate José Saramago to right-wing politicians and opinion-makers who nevertheless expressed their support for Obama, there are some analysts questioning the new US President’s ability to deliver on the very high expectations that surrounded his election; or at least emphasise the need for Europe to act now in a coordinated and well-thought way so as to profit from opportunities for a reform of global governances created by this administration, underlining that they will not take place on American initiative alone.
Among these more sceptical analysis is João Marques de Almeida, who points to the need to realize the many difficulties and constraints faced by the new American President.[3] Álvaro de Vasconcelos offers an example of the kind comments made by those who see the election of President Obama as a renewed chance for a global partnership translated in an effective multilateralism. At the same time this creates a challenge for Europe, requiring a more proactive stance that will go beyond simply criticising US foreign policy and move towards formulating concrete alternative proposals to the current international status quo. The challenges are many, namely in terms of international security, with matters such as NATO enlargement and Afghanistan. But there is also the need for Europeans to build and advocate a broader agenda that goes beyond the traditional US international security priorities and towards more truly global concerns. This could naturally include reforming international institutions, namely by an effort of dialogue and inclusion of different regional organizations.[4]
In terms of the top priorities for a re-definition or re-vitalisation of the EU-US relationship, a relative consensus emerges in Portugal among decision-makers and opinion-makers. The need for a renewal of the Middle East peace process and engagement with Iran is seen as a priority given the importance of this for our near neighbours in the Southern Mediterranean. Then there is the less urgent, but no less important need to reinforce multilateral institutions and by reforming or revising them, make sure that they are able to better integrate the so-called emerging powers, perhaps by engaging in the difficult reform of the UN, but also and more immediately and easily, by permanently transforming the G8 into the G20 with a guaranteed EU presence – so as to make sure that smaller countries like Portugal will have a say in such a forum. Last but not least, there is a sense of urgency because of the current crisis, in the need for stronger, more effective global economic regulations and institutions namely regarding the financial sector and the fight against off-shores and other forms of escaping regulations and not pay taxes.
How far this ambitious agenda can be achieved, however, is less clear. Again more sceptical or cautious voices point to the basic undeniable fact that no matter how much Obama was acclaimed as the “candidate of the Europeans” he will be the “American President”, as well as the potential difficulties if we look at the views so far expressed by Obama regarding the Middle East, that if taken literally – and not as part of the campaign rhetoric – do not necessarily point to an easy convergence on that vital matter with Europe.[5] Also, the old trap of falling into the temptation of national protectionism in these hard economic times may cause serious tensions between the US and the EU.[6]
Despite these different views, what the EU needs to do in order to revitalise transatlantic relations also seems relatively consensually. Europe needs to be more proactive and co-ordinated in its external policy regarding the US and the world in general, showing a greater ability to actually deliver some international public goods, alongside the very significant, but often a strategic, contribution that it already makes – primarily through aid.
This would seem to point to the urgent need for institutional reforms of the EU external action along the lines of the Lisbon Treaty to come into place as soon as possible. The fact that European leaders were able to meet and prepare a joint letter to the new US President on the eve of the election was perhaps a positive sign that there is some awareness among current European leaders of the need for increased coordination in relations with America. Another positive fact was that Obama made clear his commitment to multilateralism, diplomacy, and renewal and reinforcement of traditional alliances, namely and explicitly with Europe. In his main foreign policy text so far, published in “Foreign Affairs” during the campaign, he points to the mistake made in dismissing “European reservations about the wisdom and necessity of the Iraq war”, and goes on to underline that “I will rebuild our ties to our allies in Europe and Asia and strengthen our partnerships throughout the Americas and Africa. Our alliances require constant cooperation and revision if they are to remain effective and relevant.”[7]
However, if this gives room for hope of a renewed and more dynamic transatlantic relationship, it also means Europeans no longer have the easy alibi of being unable to work with George W. Bush. The EU faces the challenge of becoming an effective actor in the international stage, while at the same time avoiding the power politics (Realpolitik) kind of approach so traditional of international politics dominated by states. A European power politics approach to international relations would create a serious dissonance with a project of European integration born of a rejection of it between its member states.[8] Lastly, the present writer believes that there is room to question whether the current fragile institutional basis of EU-US relations, with periodic summits, while many important issues for the transatlantic relationship actually being discussed primarily either through NATO or through the G8, could not be improved. A stronger institutionalisation with the creation of a more permanent forum for a truly European-North American partnership – perhaps with the inclusion of Canada and Mexico, i.e. a ‘NAFTO’ – would seem to be a potentially very positive step in achieving effective coordination in transatlantic relations across the board.

[1] See e.g. SpiegelOnline International: The World President. Great Expectations for Project Obama, available at: (last access: 21 November 2008).

[2] Michael Abramowitz: Portugal Urges E.U. to Accept Former Guantanamo Detainees, The Washington Post, 12 December 2008.

[3] João Marques de Almeida: A ilusão Obama, Diário Económico, 11 February 2008.

[4] See e.g. Álvaro de Vasconcelos: O fim do carácter único da Europa?, available at: (last acess: 12 December 2008); Teresa de Sousa: O que o mundo espera da América e o que a América espera do mundo, Público, 20 January 2009.

[5] João Marques de Almeida: Bush e Obama, Diário Económico, 16 June 2008.

[6] Bruno C Reis: Presidenciais Americanas: Vitória Certa da Europa, Resultados Incertos nas Relações Trans-Atlânticas, available at: (last access: 10 December 2008).

[7] Barack Obama: Renewing American Leadership, in: Foreign Affairs 4/2007, pp. 2-16.

[8] Teresa de Sousa: A Europa tem dificuldade em afirmar-se no palco internacional com uma política de potência, Público, 12 December 2008.