Transatlantic Convergence

Ralf Fücks

With Barack Obama the USA will become both more American and more European

November 13, 2008
By Ralf Fücks
Until only very recently the consensus was that Europe and America were growing ever further apart. The key words: unilateralism, Guantanamo, international criminal court, war on terror and climate policy were plenty of evidence of the transatlantic divide, and all those wanting to further underline the deep foreign policy differences pointed out the shift in the growth momentum from the American East Coast westwards. It seemed that Europe was becoming less important for the USA by the same measure that Asia was becoming more important.

Yet this picture was distorted even before the next president of the United States was elected. And all the more so now that Barack Obama and his team are preparing to assume power. The troika of France, Great Britain, and Germany negotiated with Iran in the name of the USA, too. During the Georgian crisis it was European multi-talent Nicolas Sarkozy who brokered an agreement with Russia to end the war, while the White House remained in the background. And when the credit crisis came, the co-operation between the USA and Europe was decisive in containing the panic on markets. China, India and other threshold countries have not become less important, but Europe will remain the USA’s central partner in many major international questions.

With Obama’s election the USA will become both more American and more European. It will become more American because he has rehabilitated the values of the American constitution and given the country its self-esteem back, as he represents the ethnic diversity of America and has brought sections of society into national politics that were previously on the sidelines. The basis of American democracy has become broader. At the same time, the USA will move closer to the European model in terms of both social policy and foreign policy.

The new US administration will place greater emphasis on international co-operation and stop seeing international law as an unwelcome nuisance. This is not in any way saying that America will not act in what it considers to be its national interest in cases of conflict. In the future too the USA will continue to refuse to bow to international bodies. But the Obama administration will listen to others and seek a joint approach. By entering into dialogue with its partners, America will also expect them to shoulder more of the responsibility. This will not necessarily be comfortable for Europe – but it does open up the opportunity for frank dialogue and constructive co-operation. This applies equally to international policy on climate and the restructuring of the financial markets, to a new approach in Afghanistan, and the resurrection of active disarmament policy. There will also be fresh impetus for policy in the Middle East once the taboo of negotiating with Damascus is dropped. The sooner Europe develops initiatives of its own on these questions and adopts a proactive approach to the new administration instead of one of wait and see what they will be confronted with the better.

Redistributor in Chief

The preoccupation with America’s global foreign policy tends to overshadow the paradigm shift in social policy that is in the offing. The room for manoeuvre for a change of direction in the area of foreign policy is substantially smaller than exists in the area of issues that the Obama team now intends to address in order to remedy the mistakes of the past years and decades. With Barack Obama the neo-liberal revolution that began in the eighties will finally come to an end. Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal will an American president take up office with an agenda that has such a decided focus on social policy issues: equal opportunities, general health insurance, good and affordable education for everyone, modernisation of public infrastructure, greater compatibility of family and work. Barack Obama is prepared to tackle the taboo of “redistribution of wealth” and branding him as a “wealth spreader” or “redistributor in chief” did nothing for the Republican cause. Once this would probably have cost the Democratic candidate for president the election, but not this time.

The way the Bush administration reacted to the threatened collapse of the banking system showed in itself that “times are changing” in the USA as well: an end to the wave of privatisations and the orgy of deregulation, recognition that the market needs regulation backed by politicians and the law. The relationship between the market and the state will also be redefined in the home of capitalism. This does not mean that America will copy the old-school style of the European welfare state. The USA will remain a country in which initiative, self-responsibility, and the entrepreneurial spirit have a major role to play. And this is where Europe could learn something from America. But draining the substance of public infrastructure, the deep divide between sections of society, and the economic uncertainty that is spreading have now reached a point where they threaten both the social cohesion and the economic future of America. This was the core message of the Obama campaign and it fell on fertile soil, also among the privileged classes.

Green wave in the White House

Transatlantic convergence seems to be in the offing in the fields of climate and energy policies as well. The way ahead had already been prepared over the last few years by initiatives taken by cities, federal states, and businesses that saw climate protection not as an unavoidable necessity but as an economic chance. This green wave has now reached the White House. A few days before Barack Obama was elected, the head of his “transition team”, John Podesta, spoke at an event of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Washington. He announced that Barack Obama, if elected, would make climate protection a top priority, made the connection between dependence on oil, climate change, and increasing competition to gain resources in short supply, announced the introduction of a national CO2 emission trading (cap & trade), and pleaded for greater energy efficiency. What was striking was the connection he made between averting a threatened recession and making “green investments”. According to John Podesta, it is not about kick-starting consumption but about investment in education, science, and the ecological modernisation of the economy in order to stimulate growth that can be sustained. It is to be hoped that this message will be heard in Europe.

Washington’s expectations of a renewed transatlantic partnership are huge. Podesta expressed this in the formula that Europe should not use the past as an excuse to evade future co-operation. This does not only apply to Afghanistan and Iraq. The door for transatlantic initiatives is open and the courage to make changes should not just be on America’s side.

Ralf Fücks is a member of the executive board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 1996. He is a regular contributor to numerous newspapers and political periodicals and co-author to numerous books.