Column: America's European president

BERLIN

I have long been a critic of the German foreign policy debate — of its freeloading on the American security umbrella, coupled with moral grandstanding whenever the Americans did things their way; of too much analysis of past events and not enough thinking about how to get things right in the future; of its tendency to take words as a substitute for deeds. That's why I have usually given the Americans the benefit of the doubt: At least they took on problems nobody else was willing to tackle.

But then, at the height of the Syria conflict and just after yet another of Barack Obama's speeches, I suddenly understood the problem with this American president and his foreign policy. He sounded just like a German politician: all moral outrage, but little else to help end one of the most devastating civil wars of our age. Obama, I thought with a sigh, has become European.

Indeed, the less this president wants to get involved in something abroad, the more he dials up his rhetoric. That the American president finds things "unacceptable," one of his administration's favorite words, doesn't carry any real meaning anymore; it certainly doesn't mean that America will try to change what it deems "unacceptable."

One school of thought holds that Obama is only executing the will of the people by staying out of conflicts around the globe. After two wars Americans are tired, so the reasoning goes, and need a respite from the world. And after the country recovers economically and mentally, it will return to be its true global self. Or maybe not. Maybe, as Peter Beinart argued earlier this year in National Journal, Americans are becoming more European in many respects, from attitudes on social welfare — like their grudging but growing acceptance of Obamacare — to religion and foreign policy.

Recent polls suggest that Americans are not happy with the results of Obama's foreign policy, though they still shy away from the costs that more engagement on the globe would entail. Welcome to my world. It sounds awfully European to want to have one's cake and eat it at the same time.

There is irony in the fact that Obama's foreign policy finds its Waterloo in the same country that shipwrecked the Bush doctrine: Iraq. It is true that the Bush administration seriously mishandled the war in Iraq. But it is also true that after the surge, George W. Bush handed Obama an Iraq that was in much better shape than it is today.

By rushing to the exit and teaming up with the Iranians to reinstall Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after he lost the elections in 2010 — and by not confronting him forcefully on his anti-Sunni policies — the Obama administration undermined the progress American troops had paid for very dearly.

Then came another deed of omission in Syria. For years Middle East experts had warned that the civil war in Syria would not be confined to that country but would spill over into neighboring countries. But Obama stood back, using rhetoric and admonitions while ignoring experts. Yet they were right: The crisis in Iraq is a direct result of Obama's nonconfrontational strategy in Syria.

When he was first elected in 2008, Obama was hailed on the old Continent as a president with almost European sensitivities and world views. But the compliment was unintentionally double-edged. For more than two decades now, Europeans have assumed that the world would remain comparatively stable and wouldn't need much hard power to be maintained (at least European hard power, that is). So too, it seems, does Obama.

While Obama's new style of diplomacy — soft power and nonintervention — was at first seen as a welcome break with the Bush years, five years later a dismal realization has set in. It turns out that soft power cannot replace hard power. On the contrary, soft power is merely a complementary foreign policy tool that can yield results only when it is backed up by real might and the political will to employ it if necessary.

Ultimately, the measuring stick for a successful foreign policy is not how many nice and convincing speeches a leader makes, but whether he succeeds in getting things to go his way. And in this respect Obama's low-impact foreign policy was simply not enough. Because if America stays out of the fray, there are many others who will fill the void: Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, Iran, Russia; the list of actors and countries that are actively pushing against European and American interests, and getting away with it, grows ever longer.

Barack Obama wanted America to learn from Europe's soft-power approach. But while Europeans are loath to admit it, they know that European soft power often doesn't work either — and that it is a luxury that they could afford only because America's hard power always loomed in the background. And when they dropped the ball, America would pick it up. And therein lies the lesson to our American friends who seemingly want to become less involved and more European: There is no second America to back you up when you drop the ball.

Clemens Wergin is the foreign editor of the German newspaper group Die Welt and the author of the blog Flatworld.

© 2014 New York Times

Column: America's European president 07/09/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 6:15pm]

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