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At stake in November: a certain kind of leadership in the transatlantic relationship

24 October 2012
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Two important and relatively novel features of American international leadership, both of which are intimately connected with the Obama administration, are at stake in the November presidential election in the United States. One relates to the general kind of leadership that the world, and specifically Europe, has come to expect from Washington on matters of international importance. The other has to do with the specific contributions of the current US administration to the debate on the most effective way to address the current international economic crisis. Although a Romney victory in November would not cause the sky to fall or worlds to collide, it would usher in a decidedly different US presence in international affairs, one more reminiscent of the early Bush II years and as such, vastly less suited to the regeneration of the transatlantic relationship.

For the past four years, the United States has been feeling its way – sometimes effectively, sometimes not – toward a new approach to foreign policy. This journey has resembled a crabwalk more than a clear forward march, and is perhaps best characterised by the phrase ‘watch what we do, not what we say’. The changing role that the United States has adopted for itself in international affairs was on display most clearly in the Libya campaign, when the Obama administration expressly declined to take the lead in the military action against Muammar Gaddafi, and instead allowed the French and the British to spearhead the initiative while providing critical logistical and flanking support to the air campaign. The approach was not just multilateral, but entailed the United States ‘leading from behind’. In short, the Obama administration has begun to act consistently like the kind of transatlantic partner that Europe has long yearned for.

This American foreign policy shift has been subtle, and has not been accompanied by grand speeches. More often than not, it has earned the administration an unrelenting barrage of bitter criticism from American conservatives who have accused Obama and his foreign policy team of weakness, a lack of vision, and a fundamental misunderstanding of American exceptionalism. When asked, supporters of the administration’s silent foreign policy pivot argue that it is the natural product of fundamental – read, structural – changes in the position of the United States in the international system. They point out that when measured by any indictor – economic, political, military – the United States, while an essential and in many ways dominant player on the international landscape, is no longer the sole determining actor. To speak and act as if the US were still the sole determining actor would be to invite disaster.

Yet this is precisely what the Romney candidacy is offering to the American electorate. Romney is promising a more muscular approach to foreign policy, informed by a clear sense of American national interests and a conviction that the United States has a moral obligation to lead and, whenever necessary, to lead alone. The change in style and tone will be backed by significant increases in military spending at a time when most other categories of federal spending will be targeted for substantial reductions. Given the way that not just Romney, but the entire slate of Republican aspirants to the Republican nomination for president, criticised and derided Europe during the primaries for failings and shortcomings of every variety imaginable in order to paint the Obama administration as a pale imitation of moribund socialism, it is difficult to imagine that a Romney administration would be turning easily and regularly to European partners for help, to say nothing of advice and counsel, on vital global initiatives. So for all the disappointment and criticism expressed by Europeans during the past few years about failure of the Obama administration to live up to expectations, all one can say is that things could well get worse after January.

A second aspect of American leadership that would go missing under a Romney administration would be the role – at times tortured – that Washington has played in the transatlantic discourse about how best to cope with the fallout of the current international financial crisis. Although the lines of distinction are anything but crystal clear, it is fair to say that the Obama administration, more consistently through its actions and occasionally via symbolic rhetoric, established itself early on as a forceful counterweight to the German/euro zone advocacy of austerity as the solution to the problem. The federal bailout of the auto industry and the other elements of a broad-based stimulus package enacted in the first few months after the inauguration of Obama in January 2009, produced tangible and positive domestic results, and as such vaulted the United States into a leadership role in presenting a compelling alternative to austerity. The administration’s voice was tempered by the results of the mid-term elections in 2010 where strong conservative rhetoric about ‘tax and spend’ Democrats and the evils of budget deficits and national debt took its toll on the administration, forcing Obama and his team to soften and contextualise the rationale for stimulus. That said, it has mattered greatly that there is a strong critic of austerity in the form of the Obama administration, whose arguments have resonated across the Atlantic in various corners of Europe.

There is indeed much at stake in the November election, most of all for the United States and its people, but also for Europe and the transatlantic relationship. It is no small irony that in recent years, the harshest criticisms of US policy have come from the left in Europe, and yet it is precisely the European left that has the most to lose with the outcome of the US presidential election in the shape of a president more committed than any of his predecessors to multilateralism and the deployment of soft power abroad, and to the limited but legitimate use of state power to redress market failure and social inequities at home. Although this is an agenda that is anathema to American conservatives, it is one that is, if not music to ears of European conservatives, at least not so dissonant that they stop listening.

Jeffrey Anderson is the Director of BMW Center for German and European Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service (Georgetown University). He is also affiliated with the EU Center of Excellence in Washington, DC