Saturday, November 29, 2008

Obama’s Promise of Renewing American Diplomacy With Europe: D.O.A.

[This essay was subsequently published as's Weekend Essay on November 29, 2008 under the headline "Obama and Europe: How long a love-fest?" with some minor editing and revision.]

image The bells of all Europe’s cathedrals seemed to ring in unison as the polls closed on Election Night in America earlier this month. In his rhetoric on the domestic campaign trail, President-elect Obama asked Americans to respect the judgment of Europeans that Bush’s foreign policy had been an abject disaster, not a leap of faith in that most American voters opinions coincided with those across the pond.

So, too, on his controversial summer world tour, Obama acknowledged to a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin that the prevailing attitude in Europe was that America was “part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right”, validating their animosity toward American values without stipulation.

Therefore, it was no surprise that, as results of the American election began appearing on televisions across the European continent, celebration was spontaneous and jubilant.

In Leicester, England, in the days following Obama’s victory over Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Kwame Boyce-Deacon, a fourteen year-old black Briton went to his barber to have the image of Obama shaved into the hair on the back of his head. His reason and purpose were clear. “Obama is the first black President of America and I'm the first black model of Obama in Leicester – which is special for me,” Boyce-Deacon said.

The euphoric reaction to the idea of America’s first black president was not confined to capricious Brit teens.

Lady Scotland, Britain’s attorney general, said, “This wonderful election demonstrates that the dream of Martin Luther King that there would come a time when people would be judged not by the colour of their skin but the quality of their character has arrived.”

In sync with the waves of political and social ecstasy, Rama Yade, France’s junior minister for human rights, said, “This is the fall of the Berlin Wall times ten. America is re-becoming a New World. … On this morning, we all want to be American so we can take a bite of this dream unfolding before our eyes.”

The election represented more than just a repudiation of the Bush Doctrine and validation of European desires to have America resume a partnership role in world affairs, rather than one of leadership. For many Europeans it was a symbol that barriers to minorities were falling further, and for the president-elect, his status as an icon in Europe must have encouraged him to feel that his goals of working with Europe to achieve his foreign policy objectives were attainable. The unfortunate irony is that the rallying of Europe’s citizens around a symbol of ethnic minority achievement will be the precise undoing of Obama’s European agenda.

At first consideration, the idea that at a time when Europe’s citizenry - for the first time since 9/11 - are claiming solidarity with Americans, Obama might have any difficulty repairing alliances seems ill-conceived. After all, with Obama’s election to the American presidency, Europe has forgiven us for our sins and given us an opportunity for redemption.

What a relief. Now I can visit Auschwitz and not feel ashamed of my country.

There is hypocrisy, however, in Europe’s treatment of America, evident in their over-loud feedback to our politics. European condescension of their little American cousins has a history equal in bulk to that of America’s rescuing their lard from so many wars rooted in squabbling over what crown head of Europe would dominate the people of [insert name of darker-skinned and resource-rich region here].

Underscoring this typical European blind arrogance, an unnamed Frenchman was quoted on Election Night as saying, “Finally, a victory over racism in the whole world.”

The entire world? Are we to conclude that America’s election of a black man eradicated racism the world over? Surely, Europeans do not have to look all the way to America for an example of diversity in the highest of government offices. Can they not refer to the history of German chancellors, French presidents and British prime ministers to find minority role models? No? Let us expand our query to include Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland the Benelux nations. Still none? Scandinavia? Greece? The Balkans?

USA: 1 – Europe: 0.

Although Europe’s leaders and heads of state most certainly did lean down from their perches of moral superiority to pat the United States on the head and tousle our hair a bit, statements on Obama’s election ranged from guarded to non-substantive.

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, called Obama’s election a “historic victory”. French President Nicholas Sarkozy proclaimed that his presidency “raised enormous hope in France, Europe and beyond.” Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev’s comments post-election did not even mention President-elect Obama by name. No commendations from Europe’s top tiers of power for the defeat of racism, just restrained and generic statements of support, typical of those made during any presidential power transition.

With Obama’s approval ratings in Europe riding higher than those of the continental heads of government, why would these leaders choose to ignore an opportunity to jump on coattails and hail America’s black champion? To answer that question requires understanding the European climate concerning ethnicity and race. As stated by Trevor Philips, a black politician in the United Kingdom who now heads the British Equality and Human Rights Commission:

“It would be very difficult for somebody like Barack Obama to find their way through the way we do things. I don’t think that the public of this country would be at all resistant to electing a black Prime Minister … My point is that it is very difficult for people who don’t fit a certain mould – to do with gender, to do with race and to do with class – to find their way into the upper reaches of politics.”

A Labour party representative to the British Parliament, Sadiq Khan, addresses the political conditions in a way that shines more light on the quickening that worries Europe’s establishment.

"In Britain you can't make a brilliant speech and get noticed in the way Barack Obama did. You have to rise up through the ranks in parliament. Our history is different. Mass migration - slavery - took place to America 400 years ago. Condoleezza Rice is the fourth generation of her family to go to university. Our mass migration has only happened over the last 40 to 50 years. But our recent progress has been far steeper than in the US - we have been much quicker."

The fluorescent pink, green and yellow-striped elephant – bound, gagged and stuffed in the water closet during the Europe’s mid-November Obamafest – has been Europe’s own problems with immigrant populations and a lack of cultural integration. America has shattered the illusion that it could not elect a minority person to our highest executive office. The spotlight now shines on Europe, and that kind of light cascading through its mirrored halls of power must be blinding to the elite establishment that wants to preserve their own history and traditions while maintaining social harmony.

Despite trivial and anecdotal statistics of interracial and same-gender couples walking down the streets of Paris or Amsterdam without causing a stir, most large European cities have developed ghetto districts of immigrant populations – many from North Africa the Middle East and Central Asia; many culturally Arab, Berber and/or Muslim. These communities are typically isolated and dominated by poverty, consume a disproportionate amount of public resources and often choose not to assimilate into their host country’s culture. In many such places – as cited by Bruce Bawer in his controversial book "While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within", governments grapple with Muslim populations that openly defy Western democracy and the rule of non-Sharia law.

Therefore, when considering its European strategy, the Obama administration must consider the following question: Will the European establishment allow Obama to lead the world when to do so would create an upsurge of potential energy within ethnic communities to fight for proportional representation in government, energy that could quickly become active and transform Europe in ways that the establishment is unprepared to handle?

There is every reason to believe that Europe will eventually overcome its institutional biases concerning race, ethnicity and culture. It is, however, not a change that can be forced and societies have sometimes alarming reactions to change that moves too fast.

The widespread popularity of Obama among the European people – combined with the plug-and-play compatibility of his self-assessed “mutt” heritage – could become a fuel source for minority movements, some of which will openly challenge the legitimacy of the status quo. Obama is already a poster-child for minority movements. With his crowning by some as a world leader, it may simply not be in the interest of Europe’s power elite to grant him greater status by allowing him to stand as a leader on the international stage. From a Machiavellian perspective they would be alienating themselves from their own bases of power, thus making re-election less likely. Even if their motives are less self-preserving and more concerned with the continuation of their forms of government, an ascendant Obama could be used as a symbolic leader of a broad range of anti-establishment movements.

It would seem then, that Europe will have no choice but to allow the waltz of diplomacy to be conducted while finding ways to bar Obama from taking the lead or the spotlight. President Obama will be forced to operate within the same box as President Bush, pursuing America’s interests without the support of European leaders. Obama knows that he must resist the temptation to gain the approval of the Old World Order to appear strong at home. Doing so will mean favoring policies that promote American interests and alienate our allies in Europe and those allies, because of their own domestic concerns, will be more than glad to conduct relations with a style that tips toward adversarial.

If an adversarial dialogue is inevitable, Obama will have little choice but to adopt a more unilateral approach to foreign policy. To pursue any other course would find his 2012 re-election campaign rummaging the drawers for fancy clothes to dress up a set of mediocre achievements.

The results of Europe not letting Obama 'in the room' could be real and disastrous.  NATO expansion, Russian aggression and Middle Eastern tensions will all force us to work in some way with Europe to bridge gaps and broker agreements.  The emphasis of Obama's foreign policy team should be to formulate strategies that coerce or triangulate Europe, but which do not require voluntary agreement on their part. 

Of course, Europe could set it itself on a different course. Instead of fighting against minority inclusion and proportional representation they could begin conceiving of ways to reshape a society restrained by so much ivy and stone. When we can read in the New York Times that a person of color has assumed the helm of France, Germany or Britain, only then will a minority American president be truly welcomed into the clique of Europe’s elite.


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