US: Rejecting the status quo?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Jan 5 16:24:14 UTC 2008

Don't hold your breath
US elections 2008: The victories of Obama and Huckabee suggest a
rejection of the status quo - except when it comes to repairing
American-European relations
Stephen Holmes

What do the victories of two relatively inexperienced outsiders, Barak
Obama and Mike Huckabee, in the Iowa caucuses mean for American
foreign policy in general and the Atlantic alliance in particular? It
is too soon to predict, on the basis of a plurality of votes cast by a
sliver of eligible voters in a small state, who will eventually
prevail in the nomination process. But it is not too soon to ask if
the Bush administration's unfathomably cavalier and gratuitously
alienating attitude toward America's European allies will change
substantially on January 20 2009.

Commentators seem to agree that the voters who chose Obama and
Huckabee felt that they were rejecting the status quo. To put the
missteps of the past behind them, they apparently voted for the
candidates about whom they knew the least. But exactly what status quo
did they imagine they were rejecting? Upon inspection, the "politics
as usual" that they apparently sought to rebuff looks nebulous. Obama
has repeatedly linked Hillary Clinton, whose political team is
personally and ideologically committed to wresting power from the
current incumbents, to the thinking dominant in Washington from 2001
to 2007. Even more oddly, the genial and erratic Huckabee says that
the Mormon former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, represents
the powers that be.

To focus the discussion, we can ask the following question: Did the
status quo rejected by Obama's and Huckabee's voters include the
deterioration of American-European relations under the oresidency of
George Bush? After all, the current administration's denigration of
"old Europe" was not just a rhetorical aside, but a centrepiece of its
reckless approach to foreign affairs. That is why any serious break
with the disastrous Bush legacy should start with rethinking and
rebuilding the Atlantic alliance. That a renewed Atlanticism would be
a priority for either Obama or Huckabee is extremely doubtful,

Relations between the US and Europe have gone virtually unmentioned in
the dozens of presidential debates held over the past six months. This
is not surprising. Candidates have no incentive to focus attention on
a subject, such as the strained Atlantic alliance, that seldom if ever
enters the consciousness of the average voter. Obama's failure to
convene a single policy meeting of the Senate European subcommittee
which he chairs (a committee that oversees, among other things, US
relations with Nato and the EU) has had absolutely zero resonance
among the electorate at large. When the topic arises, the Republican
candidates, for their part, seem less blandly indifferent than overtly
hostile to Europe. Their anti-European animus, while crudely
uninformed, reflects, among other factors, the scorn for secularism
typical of Southern white evangelicals and the perverse notion
promulgated by some distinguished Republican defence intellectuals
that Europe today can contribute little or nothing to American

Why does Europe matter to the United States? Five reasons stand out.

First, Europe is as much a frontline region in the war on terror as it
was during the cold war. As last year's aborted attack on 10 airliners
heading to the US from London revealed, the likelihood of a terrorist
attack on American citizens emanating from a European country remains
high. America may not need the French military, but it certainly needs
the French intelligence services.

Second, Europeans' linguistic skills and cultural knowledge alone
ensure that they can make indispensable contributions to US security.
The spread of English as the world's language has had a paradoxical
effect on American national security, making the United States
transparent to people around the world, while making the rest of the
world increasingly opaque to Americans. Europeans can help correct
this defect.

Third, the narcissism of small differences and Bush's war aside,
Americans and Europeans share a common way of life and cultural
commitment to tolerant individualism that is not found with the same
intensity, concentration and unchallenged dominance in most of the
rest of the world. Europeans and Americans also face many of the same
foreign policy challenges. These include not just terrorism, but also
politically destabilising immigration pressures caused by the wealth
gap between north and south, the job-destroying expansion of low-wage
labour in China, Russian president Vladimir Putin's unpredictable
petro-politics, nuclear proliferation involving politically unstable
countries, contagious disease, global warming and so forth. It would
be culturally suicidal for the west not to work together to devise
ways to manage these immensely difficult problems.

Fourth, Nato can not only bring important military capabilities to the
table, reducing the drain on American forces in a turbulent world; it
also offers a much more plausible vehicle for serious foreign-policy
multilateralism than either the EU or the UN.

Fifth, and perhaps most important, elementary human psychology teaches
that individuals who shun contact with others have a weak grasp of
reality. Individuals who are never criticised by companions whom they
trust, and with whom they share a basic value orientation, have a hard
time remaining mentally balanced. The same is true of nations. What
makes allies indispensable to an effective national-security policy is
the ability of like-minded nations to provide the reality checks
without which a fallible superpower is, as we have regretfully seen,
unable to keep its balance on swiftly evolving and treacherous
international terrain.

Because 60% of Huckabee's Iowa vote came from evangelicals, it still
seems probable that the Republican nominee will end up being Mitt
Romney, John McCain or Rudy Giuliani. All of them are strong
supporters of Bush's bellicose foreign policy, and all would campaign
on the premise that "fear" has a greater emotional hold on the
American electorate than "hope". They may well be right.

Obama is an obviously gifted politician who, if elected president,
would probably break, or attempt to break, from some frustratingly
inflexible American policies, especially concerning Israel. But other
candidates, notably Hillary Clinton, would be more likely to conduct
an intensely Atlanticist foreign policy, placing emphasis on
rebuilding America's alliance with those extraordinarily prosperous
countries best positioned to help the US face the daunting challenges
to global stability that lie ahead.
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