Obama, Europe and Anti-Americanism

We are at an unusual moment in U.S.-Europe relations. The nadir of our post-war relationship with Europe was only a few years ago when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of numerous European capitals to protest the U.S.-led war in Iraq as well as the overall foreign policy of the Bush administration. At that time, the U.S. was more unpopular in Europe than it had been in decades. This unpopularity remained as the war in Iraq ground on and the disastrous unilateralist foreign policy of the Bush administration continued unabated for several more years.

The protests and anti-American feeling were based on real and strongly held beliefs and reaction to a U.S. foreign policy that many in Europe felt was destructive, irrational and dangerous. Nonetheless, this policy was, for most Europeans, with the exception of the militaries of the U.K. and, to a lesser extent, a few other countries, very distant and abstract. The U.S. policies the Europeans were protesting so vehemently were occurring in Iraq, Afghanistan and other faraway places. This was not even like the early 1980s when the Reagan administration’s efforts to place missiles in Western Europe were viewed by many there as a direct security issue.

Today, anti-Americanism in Europe has receded a great deal. Anti-Americanism, as President Obama’s advisor David Axelrod pointed out, “isn’t cool anymore.” This is very fortunate for the U.S. because if it was still cool, the tide of anti-Americanism in Europe today would very likely make that of 2003-2005 look like a Fourth of July picnic. During those years, anti-Americanism was spurred by U.S. foreign policy which, as bad as it might have been, had very little effect on the day-to-day lives of most Europeans. Today, the continent is in the throes of a major economic recession which many would like to blame on the U.S. The implosion of the overheated U.S. economy with its seemingly infinite market for a broad range of consumer goods has dragged down huge segments of global trade while the subprime mortgage problems have created a ripple effect which has devastated the world’s finances. This should be the language of the new anti-Americanism, but so far, it has yet to materialize.

The reason for this is that the new anti-Americanism is trumped by the persona and story of the new American president. Europe is too busy swooning over Barack Obama to focus on new reasons to be angry with the U.S. Even Obamamania, however, cannot last forever. Eventually, if the recession is long enough and populist European leaders are persuasive enough, there will be a new rise of anti-Americanism in Europe. Obama is racing against time. The current feeling of goodwill will, and probably should, recede as the U.S. cannot rely on an almost irrational excitement about its president to undergird our most important alliances. Obama, therefore, must use this moment to rebuild U.S.-Europe relations and lay the groundwork for the next iteration of trans-Atlantic relations and institutions while he still can and while being anti-American is still uncool.