Atlantic Council: ‘Obama can learn soft power from Europe’

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Under Barack Obama, the US can learn from Europe how better to use its “massive” soft power in dealing with global crises, Fred Kempe, president of leading foreign policy think tank the Atlantic Council of the US, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Fred Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council of the United States, a leading Washington foreign policy think tank. 

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

Europe, and indeed the world, has invested a lot of hope in new US President Obama’s ability to restore America’s reputation around the globe and restore relations with close allies. Is he doomed to fail vis-à-vis such high expectations?

The challenges are a bigger problem than the expectations: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Gaza will all be on his plate on January 20 as issues that won’t wait. But most importantly, he has reduced resources and room for manoeuvre because of the global financial crisis, and passing a stimulus package to take on the dangers of unemployment, inflation and a longer-term recession must be his first challenge. It will be helpful that the world wants him to do well, but never since World War II has a new US president taken office with such a daunting a list of foreign policy and domestic challenges. 

What do you think about Obama’s foreign policy cabinet? What policy implications will the appointments of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor Jim Jones have for Europe? 

General Jones is a soldier statesman of the highest calibre. He knows Europe, speaks French fluently, and worked intimately with all its major countries as Supreme Allied Commander. So he’ll be sophisticated in his dealings with Europe. Yet President Obama is likely to make many of the same demands on Europe as did his predecessor – and the question is whether Europe will be there as a partner with its resources on the most critical issues. Secretary of State Clinton also brings in with her some of Washington’s best thinkers on European issues – so there will be no lack of familiarity with Europe in D.C., but familiarity does not always breed satisfaction. 

In his capacity as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on European Affairs, Obama did not call a single meeting, nor indeed was he particularly active in any practical way. Is this an indication of how his administration will (or will not) engage with the EU? 

Obama is pragmatic. He knows everything in the world can be fixed more easily if you have the precondition of US-European cooperation, from climate change issues to Iranian weapons’ ambitions. But I think the onus is more on Europe in these first 12 months to show Obama that it can be an effective partner. 

How soon before we see Obama or Hillary Clinton in Europe, and among the EU nations, who do you expect will be the new administration’s main partner? 

Obama will be in Europe in April for the G20 meeting in London and then the NATO 60th anniversary summit in France and Germany. There is a unique chance for a close relationship with France and a real opportunity to improve stalled relations with Germany. I think a major initiative toward Europe may be one of his first diplomatic initiatives – because the constellation of leaders is right and the need is urgent. 

Obama said he wants the US and the EU to be partners, not antagonists. What can Obama learn from Europe and what can Europe learn from the US?

The US can learn from Europe how better to use its massive soft power in a preventive way to spot and avoid emerging crises in places like Africa. Europe can learn from the US the need to look at its responsibilities in a global manner and be less internally focused. 

According to an Atlantic Council paper, the world in 2025 will be a multipolar one, with America’s relative power declining and China and India gaining influence. Would this scenario not necessarily require closer cooperation between Europe and the US? 

If we want to continue to have the same amount of influence in the future as we had in the past, we can’t do so without much more effective cooperation. I am in favour of a new institutional framework of some sort that enhances NATO and the EU by bringing together their members and leaders strategically and operationally to more effectively address their most crucial issues, from energy security to Afghanistan.

What are the first three priorities in transatlantic relations? On which issues can Obama expect to find European support, and where, in contrast, is conflict likely to arise?

The first priority is fixing the USA’s image in Europe, and then the other priorities become more possible. My top three are Afghanistan, because its urgent and already a transatlantic mission; climate and energy issues, because this will show the US and Europe are on the same page and can lead together globally with China and India, and the global financial crisis, where only a common approach can avoid a longer and more painful recession. 

The global recession is currently the dominant topic. Is there a danger that the new administration might be preoccupied with this issue and not give much attention to foreign policy, especially not to Europe? 

If this isn’t dealt with in the first six months, it could suck the wind out of this administration and make Obama a one-term president. So he will be pre-occupied, but he also must be. It will be a test of cooperation with Europe as well. 

There was a lot of talk in Europe on readjusting capitalism after the Lehman debacle. How do you see Obama’s approach to this? Will it differ from the European one? 

The US will move more quickly away from state intervention than Europe, which is the danger: in the fact that both are currently going in that direction necessarily over the short term. 

With a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, is a more protectionist America inevitable? 

Sadly, the signs are not good. It is the biggest danger in a Democratic Congress and an Obama presidency. It would be the most counter-productive direction the US could take, but it will take presidential leadership of the sort Clinton showed on the issue. 

Can the Europeans count on Obama’s support in reviving the Doha talks? 

If Europe isn’t willing to make some tough concessions on agriculture, I don’t know whether Obama can count on Europe either. Both sides have to lead. Russia’s resurgent use of power politics is arguably one the EU’s greatest contemporary geopolitical challenges. 

How is Obama likely to engage the two sides, what will be the USA’s strategic goals vis-à-vis Russia and what ‘carrots and sticks’ will he employ? Will he maintain support for missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic? 

There is a deal to be had with Russia on missile defence if the Russians want it – but it would require a tougher Russian approach to Iran and it would require Europeans also speaking to Russia with a common, concerted voice. And it will require Russia to give its neighbours the freedom to choose their own alliances. Europe itself is divided on this issue. This is the matter along with Iran that I think poses the potential for disagreement across the Atlantic. 

Both the EU and Obama made the fight against climate change a priotity. There is great hope in Europe that Obama will take a decisive role in talks to get a post-Kyoto agreement in Copenhagen at the end of the year. Do you think the US under Obama might even ‘outgreen’ Europe? 

I have no doubt the US will outgreen Europe by creating not only the technology, but the incentives and the capital markets that will push forward more quickly than Europe a far-reaching green economy. 

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