President-elect Barack Obama’s election to the American presidency does not solve western Europe’s conundrums over foreign policy but instead throws them into sharp relief. The issues are familiar enough. They include the role, possible expansion and general future of NATO, relations with Russia, all the problems arising from the war in Afghanistan and the continuing occupation of Iraq, and the challenge of global warming. Mr. Obama’s general approach to European foreign policy issues is likely to be far more thoughtful and nuanced than the Manichaean, good-versus-evil, attitude that has permeated the Bush administration for all its eight years in office. Mr. Obama has also taken recent steps to counter criticism of his comparative neglect of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that he used to chair. He has maintained a high international profile since his election and worked hard to master the details of a range of international issues. Nevertheless, the major western European states are no nearer to a judicious and united foreign policy than they were at the start of the Bush administration.
The first obstacle to a united foreign policy is the United Kingdom, mainly because Prime Minister Gordon Brown will not want to give his electoral opponents any hint of a surrender of British sovereignty. Criticism that British foreign policy has been made in Washington since 1945 has made little difference. Secondly, although the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has criticised the planned deployment in Europe of a U.S. missile defence system, and although Mr. Obama is known to be willing to consider all options on that, NATO has unanimously supported the deployment. That, together with NATO Ministers’ support for accession by Georgia and Ukraine, has understandably exacerbated Russian feelings of encirclement and even victimisation. The third major European state, Germany, goes its own way, forming lasting links with Russia through economic cooperation, ignoring U.S. criticism of European dependence on Russia. On Iraq, the British withdrawal continues. But every western European state bar one will be very concerned about Mr. Obama’s plans to intensify military activity in Afghanistan and about their own likely role there; the U.K., of course, is with Mr. Obama on this. Perhaps the only area of possible western European agreement on an international issue is global warming. Given the current improbability of European agreement on foreign policy, this hypothesis can be proposed: had John McCain won on November 4, western Europe might have moved much more decisively towards a united and distinctive foreign policy.