Scholar: Obama protectionism mere ‘election talk’

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Barack Obama is unlikely to convert his protectionist rhetoric into concrete policies if he wins US presidential elections on 4 November, John Glenn of the German Marshall Fund told EURACTIV in an interview.

John Glenn is director of the foreign policy programme at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in Washington, D.C.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

An overwhelming majority of Europeans would vote for Obama. What do you think makes Obama so attractive to them? 

All the public opinion polls, including those conducted by the German Marshall Fund, show that Obama is overwhelmingly favoured by Europeans. On one level, this is very familiar because Democratic candidates running for US President tend to be preferred in Europe as their policies are closer to European policies in general. 

However, the current situation (with the Bush administration, which has seen the deepest rifts in US-European relations in recent years, coming to an end) has created a hunger for change in Europe. 

Obama, by virtue of his youth, by virtue of his identity as an African-American and by virtue of his more analytical approach to public policy, is a very attractive candidate for Europeans. He seems to represent the tradition of American diversity and vitality. I think that he is seen by some Europeans as a representation of the part of America that they like and that they understand, the ‘blue state’ America if you will. 

I think that put together, these things make him the candidate that can attract over 200,000 people that came to see him in Berlin. That was remarkable. 

Do you think that a President Obama would be better suited to getting transatlantic relations back on track? If yes, how could he do that? 

This is a very interesting question because John McCain has a much longer history and track record of working with Europe, understanding Europe and knowing European leaders than Barack Obama does. He has come to the Annual Security Conference in Munich for years now and when he went to Europe after having secured the Republican nomination, it was not the first time he had met European leaders such as Nicholas Sarkozy or Gordon Brown. These are people who he had met before and knew, whereas for Barack Obama, Europe will be more of a new terrain. 

Then, the second part is that both candidates, if they were to become president, would face serious constraints and the policy differences may be fewer than some would expect. 

There are no easy answers on Iraq. Both candidates are likely to ask for more help in Afghanistan and both candidates are likely to be faced with the challenge of what to do over Russia and Iran. 

What I think that we can imagine, however, is that the change in America’s soft power abroad may be very different. I think that John McCain, unfairly or not, is very closely identified with President Bush’s policies in Iraq and policies dealing with the surge in Iraq. 

Whether or not that policy has worked in Iraq is another matter, but I think that a President Obama is likely to be received in a warmer fashion. Even though he may ask for similar things from Europeans as a President McCain, the response may be very different, because of this change in America’s soft power, the whole communicative style and public diplomacy.

So are you saying that Europe would benefit more from a fresh candidate like Obama who still has to establish contacts in Europe? Is he not an apprentice compared to the experienced McCain when it comes to foreign policy? 

In a paradoxical manner, that may be true. Now, the danger here though is that there could be artificially high expectations. Europeans like Obama, so when he comes in they might have very high hopes of a completely clean slate. That may lead to disappointment, because a President Obama is likely to ask more of Europe in a number of areas and it may be harder to say ‘no’ to a President Obama than it would be, certainly to President Bush, but perhaps also to a President McCain. 

Do you think that the selection of vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden will have a strong impact on transatlantic relations, given his huge foreign policy experience as opposed to the very inexperienced Sarah Palin? If Obama gets elected, do you think it would have a more positive impact on transatlantic relations? 

The selection of a vice president is primarily a matter for US domestic politics. However, Sarah Palin has been seen by Europeans as a symbol of the America that they worry about. She has been seen as the symbol of a parochial America that does not approach international matters with a long history of expertise and knowledge.

I think it will not so much impact upon transatlantic relations, but what it has done is that it has shaped Europeans’ perceptions of what a McCain Presidency would be. 

Prior to her nomination, McCain could have been seen as a very traditional, Republican, nationalinterest-style candidate that would be very familiar to Europeans along the lines of the first President Bush. 

But the selection of Sarah Palin has called that into question and made Europeans more wary of what a McCain Presidency would be. 

To the contrary, Senator Biden is less of a force for the perception of the Obama campaign. I think that is more about the head of the ticket. 

Jerry Hagstrom from the ‘National Journal’ wrote that transatlantic relations would improve under either candidate, since in both scenarios, the neo-cons would disappear from the political scene. Would you agree with this assumption? 

Well, I do not know if the neo-cons would disappear but he is right in one really important way, regardless of who is elected. Both Obama or McCain would do three things that have been at the heart of the transatlantic rift: they would likely close Guantanamo, ban torture and move forward on climate change. 

These three things have really been at the heart of the true difficulties that underline the difficulties over Iraq and I hope that if Europeans see a president in the White House doing those three things will recognise the positive steps forward regardless of who is elected. 

You already mentioned one of the key policy challenges: climate change. Indeed, you said that both candidates are likely to have a more cooperative approach than the current Bush administration. But are there different nuances between each candidate? 
 

My understanding is that there will not be substantial differences in the overall outlook. Both candidates want to have a new, sustainable, post-Kyoto framework for dealing with climate change. This, I think, is the most important thing. There may be differences on some of the smaller policy levels, but the real question in understanding the impact will be the relationship of a President Obama or a President McCain to their respective Senate after 2008, because any new president will need to rely on the US Senate to ratify any treaty that comes out of a new agreement. 

I think that we are in an interesting situation. On the one hand, we expect to have a Democratic Senate so it should be capable of a new treaty. So one could imagine that a Democratic President with a good relationship with the Senate would be able to go further. 

On the other hand, I think a President McCain would actually be well-positioned to seek climate change as an area of agreement with the Senate, even though there may be other areas where he, as a Republican president, may have difficulty working with them. 

Trade is another key transatlantic policy, particularly given the recent collapse of the Doha round. If the polls turn out to be true, we may not only end up with a Democratic president but also with a Democratic two-thirds majority in Congress. Given the more protectionist approach of the Democrats, should Europe and the world hope for a McCain victory? 

McCain has adopted, instinctively, a free-market approach to trade and I think that Obama is less clear. We saw during the Democratic primaries comments about renegotiating NAFTA that worried some. 

But I think that it would be a mistake to see him as sort of traditional Democrat who is driven by concerns over, say, the vote of trade unions and would be dramatically different because I think that we are really talking about a different person than say, President Clinton, who really shifted the Democratic party in terms of trade. I think this is a difference of degree over a hardened approach to trade rather than a fundamental approach. 

At the same time, a Democratic Congress is likely harder to deal with than a Republican Congress. I think it would be a challenge for both candidates to bring along the Democrats, who are more concerned about the impact of globalisation, of environmental standards, about global agreements. So that would be the challenge for either president. 

Another key foreign policy issue is Russia. Both candidates display different views. Obama wants to integrate Russia, McCain wants to isolate it. Is this just election talk or do you see this rhetoric actually being converted into concrete policies? 

I do think that the current rhetoric over Russia has been largely part of the election campaign. For better or for worse, the US will rely on Russia as a partner in fundamental areas, such as most of the the major issues that go through the UN Security Council, the issue of Iran’s nuclear proliferation first and foremost. 

I think that Senator McCain adopted a more aggressive approach to dealing with Russia. I think that he had a instinctual suspicion or concern about Russia and a willingness to be very critical of Russia. That is different in style from Senator Obama, but I am not sure that it will be really different in practice.

I think that both candidates will have to adopt a sort of contractual relationship with Russia that reflects the complex interdependency we have with Russia when it comes to the economy, energy and nuclear proliferation. 

Our relationship with Russia is too complex to be approached from a one-dimensional perspective. I think that that will be true for both of them. But I think that the style in which they talk about Russia will surely be different. 

A President McCain is much more likely to have a more difficult relationship with President Medvedev because he has been much more critical of former President Putin very publicly. 

I think that a President Obama would be likely to take a more measured approach that would talk about the balance of trade-offs between the different areas that we deal with for Russia today. 

Do you see differences in the area of EU-NATO relations between Obama and McCain? 

Both candidates are likely to agree that Afghanistan will be the true test of the future of NATO and I think that both candidates are likely to turn to Europeans and to say they need more from Europe. 

Now, what that ‘more’ is actually needs to be negotiated. I think that maybe a Senator McCain would possibly have a focus on the military aspect of what Europeans can contribute. 

But I think that both candidates recognise that today what is needed is not solely military or economic, but a combination of both, and I think that this will be the real challenge in how the EU can bring its expertise in economic reconstruction to a more constructive relationship with the military side of what needs to be done in Afghanistan. 

Both candidates are looking for what they call a “comprehensive solution”. I think that it has been easy for Europe to avoid this fundamental challenge under a Bush administration because it could see the Bush administration in terms of having a kind of one-dimensional military approach to the problem, when in fact, on the ground in Afghanistan and when you are dealing with NATO forces, that is not the terms by which things are working out. 

They are really trying to be in a situation of dealing both with the military and civilian aspects of the new challenges, such as a failed state in Afghanistan, and I think that there is some opportunity here for both candidates. 

There is really an opportunity for Europe and USA to actually contribute with their expertise in a way that could be quite constructive if they are willing to seize the opportunity. 

As for the financial crisis, we have recently seen increased transatlantic cooperation. Sarkozy, Barroso and Bush met in Washington and an international crisis summit will take place in the US capital on 15 November. On the other hand, Sarkozy and Bush outlined different interpretations of the future of capitalism.  Would these differences widen under McCain, who is seen as the man of big business? 

I think that the differences are likely to be in the sort of broad approach. I think that McCain comes from a Republican party that has been very resistant to regulation. It will be easier for a President Obama to talk about how we regulate the economy and in particular how the financial markets are going forward. 

This is a very peculiar situation but it is an interesting mindset, where you have a Republican administration that has been confronted with the necessity of sustantial government intervention on the economy. 

I think that explains the difficult process whereby the Congress initially rejected the Republican government’s proposal for dealing with the banks. It was so hard for them to accept the notion that there would be government intervention on finance. 

But I would like to say that for both candidates, this is not the end of capitalism, this is not nationalisation of banks. What this is is a substantial government intervention in an economic crisis. In the US, I cannot imagine either candidate talking about the end of capitalism. 

This is merely a matter of how we deal with a globalised market economy and a globalised interdependence that both Europe and the United States are facing right now. The terrain on which this has been worked out for the candidates will be the terrain on which we talk about the role of regulation, how we talk about the role of government. 

The interesting way will be whether we come to a place now where both candidates would agree that there has to be a global solution. There can not be a national solution any longer to any of these problems now because our economies are simply too interconnected. 

The list of global challenges requiring close transatlantic cooperation is growing: climate change, the Doha round talks, security and now the financial crisis. In addition, America’s global power projection and its soft power are decreasing, while new powers such as China, India or a re-emergent Russia have appeared on the world scene. With this background, would you agree that we can expect deepening transatlantic relations? 

I think we can, but I am very cautious about a zero-sum vision of power in the world. The idea that America’s power is decreasing while China’s power is increasing: I am not sure how this is going to play out. 

I think instead, we will see a situation where on a number of issues, it is incontestable that America’s reputation and credibility has declined substantially during the Bush administration.

I think that any new face in the White House will have an opportunity to restore America’s credibility abroad and both candidates have articulated the need and the desire to do just that. 

When we talk about the current financial crisis, we do not get around to also talking about the nature of the growing power of China or India. 

One scenario is that China could be the next great superpower, with an economy growing dramatically and sort of rivalling that of Europe and the United States. 

But that is an assumption that has recently been called into question because of the financial crisis. China’s growth estimates have been revised downwards somewhat substantially. Although the one area we can expect to be sure of is the rise of industrialisation and population growth, I think that there are a number of uncertainties about what the relationship with China will be in the future. 

However, in the end, the past few years have shown us that even at the moment of our deepest crisis, transatlantic relations are less and less about how we feel about each other and more on how we cooperate or don’t cooperate on dealing with global challenges. 

The French and the British were disappointed that Obama did not deliver his speech in Paris or London but in Berlin. Was that a hint that a President Obama would favour closer relations with Germany over the ‘special relationship’ with the UK? Or was it just due to the thinking that JFK delivered his famous speech in Berlin in 1963 and hence an Obama appearance there would be more symbolic? What about McCain, who is already well known in Europe?

I do not actually see the relationship between America and Europe changing dramatically on a bilateral basis, depending on which candidate is elected. I think that both candidates will see the importance of the Union. I think that Senator McCain may have a more traditional approach that emphasises bilateral relationships, whereas Senator Obama may instinctively adopt a more multilateral approach. 

I think that either candidate really knows that in dealing with Europe today you need to deal both with the European Union and with nation states. On some matters, such as trade, competitiveness and the economy, the European Union is perhaps the major player. 

On other issues, such as foreign policy matters, for better or for worse, the US will deal primarily with nation states. So I think that there is a shared sense among all countries. 

What we are seeing in Europe is a little bit more similar than different, which is that despite the recent crisis in relations, Europeans have actually elected pragmatic leaders pursuing closer relations with the US. Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are probably the most prominent examples, but I think they represent a desire on the part of Europeans to work with the United States on the areas where we have to because we simply confront too many challenges that are shared in common. 

I think that either president will understand that and I do not expect a fundamental realignment of relations with European countries on a bilateral basis that would occur if one candidate or the other was actually elected. 

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