European Response to U.S. Elections? “Watchful-Waiting” on Foreign Policy     Print Email

Most of America’s partners seem to judge that the electoral blow to President Barack Obama is bad news for a leader they like and proof that the U.S. public is moving farther away from the social values and other center-left views that amount to a broad consensus in much of the EU.

Some European critics are predicting that the outlook has worsened on two issues that are always fretful for U.S. allies: arms control with Russia and progress on a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

And there is uncertainty about how the political “ground rules” may now shift in Washington after the stronger showing by the Republicans and in general by the more conservative wings in both parties. And there is general fearfulness that the U.S. will become more introspective after an election that seemed to turn almost entirely on domestic issues.

But American elections, whatever the domestic debate, also have consequences for Europe and other U.S. allies.  And in Europe there are voices in the media, especially in Britain and France, suggesting that the White House, after the erosion of its power over Congress, may turn to foreign affairs as a way for President Obama to rebuild his image ahead of the presidential elections in 2012. (A similar theme is also being noted in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy is seen as trying to leverage his upcoming stint as head of the G-20 leading nations in order to enhance his prestige.  Each president is credited with a singular legislative victory – health care in the U.S. and retirement reform in France – that gives them stature but has also challenged them with strong political headwinds.)

In particular, there are hopes in some quarters for the election outcome to push the U.S. to veer toward a more pro-active stance in promoting freer trade. That prospect seems paradoxical after an election that was waged partly over joblessness and the claim that “out-sourcing” has cost American jobs and wages.

But in fact some Republican winners do not fit the populist mode of protectionism.  For example, newly elected Republican Senator Ron Portman is a business-oriented Republican who has served as the U.S. trade representative and as director of the Office of Management and Budget. As a new Senator from Ohio-– with its large unemployment rate and key position as a “battleground state” in 2012-– Portman ran and won as a staunch supporter of free trade who argues that liberalizing global trade and opening new markets for American investment and exports will help accelerate broader economic recovery.

It sounds like the message of 'trade promotion' that Obama himself has sounded recently in saying that he wants to grow American exports to strengthen America's global economic competitive edge. Asia is the main focus of this drive (as witnessed by the fact that he just left on his longest-ever trip to Asia), but pro-trade leadership by the U.S. could be a rising tide that lifts all boats, including those of EU exporters. Opening export markets to create high-paying American jobs implies opening some U.S. markets even wider for European exports.

But the trade agenda “will depend on a broader political calculus that can’t be sorted out until the dust settles from this earthquake election,” according to Bruce Stokes, a National Journal writer (and member of EI’s editorial advisory board).

The argument that Obama’s need to throw his weight more heavily into foreign policy was made by George Friedman, head of Stratfor, an online strategy group. In an article this week he said: “Obama has spent two years on the trajectory in place when he was elected, having made few if any significant shifts…yet a range of issues need to be attended to, including China, Russia and the countries that border each of them… Obama can no longer control Congress, but he still controls foreign policy. He could emerge from this defeat as a powerful foreign policy president, acting decisively in Afghanistan and beyond.”

Europeans, for example, have been disappointed that Obama failed to turn his rhetoric on international issues into realities. No one expected him to turn all his rhetoric into realities, but other leaders did expect him to take a stand about U.S. interests and not act as if he believed that talking about cooperation amounted to the same thing as clear politics that imply action in foreign affairs. Changing that is an option now. Will he take it? America’s partners will know in a few months.


By European Affairs