Barack Obama begins his presidency with an unprecedented level of goodwill among Europeans, who are hoping he will reverse many of the unpopular policies that embittered transatlantic relations under his predecessor. As the contours of Obama's foreign policy come into focus, however, much of the onus for smoothing the frayed relationship will lie with Europe, not the United States.
Obama faces a daunting list of domestic and foreign policy challenges, at a time when the United States' historic levels of debt -- combined with the faltering American economy -- will force him to call on Europeans to do more. Transatlantic relations will certainly suffer if Europeans are unwilling to meet his requests.
But even if Europeans do come to Obama's aid, the transatlantic landscape will still be subject to tension. Not only are Obama's positions on many key domestic and foreign policy issues quite different from those held by European leaders, he is likely to make many of the same demands on Europe that his predecessor did.
His formidable national security team, too, surrounds him with advocates of "American pre-eminence" (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), and the unilateral use of military force in the absence of U.N. support (Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice). Neither approach is likely to win him friends in European capitals.
The following is a brief summary of what Obama's first year in office holds in store for transatlantic relations.
Afghanistan. Afghanistan will, more than any other foreign policy issue, determine the course of transatlantic relations during Obama's presidency. Obama plans to send as many as 30,000 additional American soldiers to Afghanistan, while also seeking greater troop contributions from his already very reluctant European counterparts. The tension will come to a head in April 2009, when leaders of the 26-member NATO alliance gather for a summit in France and Germany.
Iran. Obama has vowed to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, declaring on the one hand that he "will never take military options off the table," while on the other that he would like to engage Iran with no preconditions. This puts him on a collision course with European officials, who want to continue with the existing European-led diplomatic track that makes Iran's suspension of uranium enrichment a precondition for U.S. engagement.
Moreover, should Obama's own diplomatic outreach fail to elicit a shift from Tehran, efforts to establish new, more comprehensive sanctions will prove a hard sell in Europe, which has a robust trading relationship with Iran.
European-based Missile Defense. As a candidate, Obama said he would cut spending on "unproven" missile defense systems, but he has not made any definitive declarations on a planned missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic. Despite a NATO endorsement for the plan at the Bucharest summit in April 2008, Europeans remain deeply divided over the issue. Poland and the Czech Republic believe missile defense will enhance their security vis-à-vis Russia, while much of Western Europe is nervous about antagonizing Moscow, which strongly opposes the system's deployment.
NATO. In addition to the problem of troop commitments, the United States and its European allies have fundamentally different ideas about what is needed to turn Afghanistan into a functioning country. The practical effect of the rift has been to undermine NATO's credibility by exposing the alliance's inability to carry out ambitious projects.
Allies are also divided over the issue of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Obama says he supports their admission to NATO "when they are ready." NATO allies like France and Germany, however, are opposed to expanding the alliance, again for fear of provoking another confrontation with Russia.
Climate Change. Obama has vowed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2050, and invest $150 billion in new energy-saving technologies. If approved by the U.S. Congress, his approach will be far more ambitious than anything proposed by Europe, which nevertheless portrays itself as the global leader on this issue.
EU leaders agreed to new climate change targets in December 2008, but the issue will come to a head in December 2009, at scheduled U.N. talks in Copenhagen on a pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol.
Global Economics. While Obama has pledged to implement a comprehensive series of reforms to the American economy designed to prevent a repeat of the current financial crisis, he is unlikely to agree to European demands to "rewrite the rules of global capitalism." Transatlantic differences over the appropriate levels of state intervention will come to a head at a major economic summit in London in April 2009.
Arab-Israeli Conflict. European leaders are hoping for more "balance" in the American approach to the conflict, but indications are that U.S.-Israeli ties will remain close. Although Obama's position will in part depend on the winner of Israeli elections in February, he has expressed sympathy for Israel's security dilemma, and Clinton has historically been a staunch supporter of Israel.
Guantánamo. Although Obama wants to shut down the Gitmo detention camp, the many legal challenges involved means that it may take as long as a year to actually close the site. European governments, who have for years called for the camp's closure, will be under pressure to help Obama find a home for some of its 248 remaining detainees. But Europeans remain split on the issue, with some countries saying they will consider taking some inmates, and others insisting it is Washington's responsibility.
Despite Obama's much-vaunted global worldview, as president he will put American interests first. But the help he receives from Europe could well determine how successful he is in advancing them. In this context, one of Obama's major trump cards is European public opinion, which across the political spectrum genuinely wants him to succeed. As a result, European governments may find it easier to support Obama on the the most difficult and important issues in ways not possible before.