In his last year, which is already well advanced, President Barack Obama is saying his goodbyes to Europe. He is trying, for better or for worse, to preserve or restore a deteriorating relationship with a worried and disoriented continent, which may be on the verge of implosion …
Last week, he jumped to Saudi Arabia, amid the Gulf kings and princes, a place where the general mood is focused on the deterioration of relations between the most powerful state in the world and some of its friends, considered in the past to be among its staunchest allies.
Sunday, in Hanover, together with Angela Merkel, he defended free trade between Europe and the U.S., going against a good part of the public opinion in the United States and Germany. In London, talking about the “Brexit” (the United Kingdom’s proposed exit from the European Union), Obama tried to display a scaremongering attitude with Prime Minister David Cameron by demolishing the idea, going against a possible majority of British people when the historical referendum comes to a vote in June.
Seven years of guerrilla politics and diplomacy led Obama to neglect, even to forget, traditional American diplomacy. It’s not that he was inactive: he was elsewhere, busy at home (fighting about immigration and the environment, and fighting for the success of his health care plan through thick and thin) and internationally (making big strides with Iran and Cuba, setting a new priority for China and dealing with the climate initiative).
However, during the last months of his presidency, Obama faces America’s decreasing influence in the more traditional European and Middle Eastern fronts.
For example, what will happen after his frank and direct intervention in the Brexit debate, an issue internal to Great Britain but with far-reaching consequences? We will see in exactly two months, but the residents of the United Kingdom who support leaving Europe, such as London Mayor Boris Johnson,* a fellow conservative of Cameron’s, but a fierce opponent of his on this issue, had a field day, stating that the U.S. president is “asking us [by remaining in Europe] to accept things an American would not,” in terms of giving up national sovereignty. A good case, according to Johnson, of “do what I say, not what I’m doing!”
Incidentally, one understands Washington’s position: a U.K. that remains (albeit nominally) a member of the European Union is a precious ally, a relay partner and a trustworthy “agent” around the negotiation table. The U.S. may not wish for a strong political Europe … but now, the real danger is real: the “Old Continent” is under threat of exploding politically.
The European “Obamania” of 2008 to 2009 is forgotten. What remains is the disillusioned love of a region of the world that has been neglected by U.S. diplomacy – disappointment in a man who naturally was not the magician he claimed to be in 2008 with his “Yes We Can” election propaganda.
But when the U.S. president tells the Old Continent that the European adventure does not deserve to die at the beginning of the 21st century, despite being threatened by waves of massive immigration, terrorist attacks and the rise of national sentiment … he deserves to be listened to.
Black clouds are gathering in European skies. The wish to end the Afghan and Iraqi adventures, the fresh priority given to Asia and the multilateral discussions on climate – during the Obama years, all of this kept the U.S. from their old allies. Obama realizes this now, but one doubts the efficacy of his late appeals, as lyrical as they are, such as, for example, when he talked about the “the tens of thousands of Americans buried in Europe,” witnesses to transatlantic solidarity, in order to influence the course of events. In this respect, the British referendum on June 23 will be a crucial test to measure American influence and European cohesion.
In the Gulf, a few days earlier, the presidential message was different: there, he told the Gulf princes that the old pact of “oil for military protection” is no longer sacred, and that yes, the U.S. is disengaging from the region, as demonstrated by their nonintervention against Bashar Assad, which so angered the Saudis.
Modesty before the limitation of power, worry before the evolution of old allies; between London and Riyadh, for Washington, the story is one of clear disengagement.
*Editor’s Note: Sadiq Khan is the current mayor of London, as of May 8, 2016.