23rd May 2019


Why Obama's victory matters to Europe

  • Europeans take an interest in the US but does the US take enough of an interest in Europe? (Photo: EUobserver)

After Barack Obama's sensational victory in the US presidential election, I replayed the recordings of the speech he made in Berlin, a little more than three months ago. At the time, some 200,000 people (or so it was reported) flocked to the Tiergarten to hear Mr Obama express sentiments that many Europeans had given up ever hearing again from an American leader.

Mr Obama's words, addressed to the people of Berlin, hit all the important European buttons. The world needed a strong European Union, he said. It was imperative that we took action on climate change and that we stood up to, and faced down, threats to democracy and freedom wherever they surfaced. He promoted messages of inclusivity to the world's races and religions, of human rights and of hope in ending the running sore of tragedies such as Darfur. He wanted to revive and enhance the transatlantic alliance.

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"Partnership and co-operation between nations is no longer a choice," he said. "It is a necessity."

After the rough ride of the Bush years (to which Obama made not a single direct reference), this was music to European ears: rationality and concord repatriated to the European shore. "I come before you as a citizen of the world," declared the senator from Illinois, knowing that we Europeans, perhaps more so than any other people, also see ourselves through that very prism.

And the man, whose roots lie on two continents, one rich, one poor, and who was born on an island speck in the broad ocean, did indeed deliver in Berlin a world view and a global leadership perspective that was multilateral and unifying and above all re-assuring.

No wonder he has been embraced by Europeans. Had we had the chance to vote -Democrat or Republican - Obama would have won, so surveys tell us, by a massive four to one.

The reason appears in the result of another survey. Gallup found that two-thirds of Europeans believe that what an American president does will affect their country.

It is only when we listen to Obama speaking that we realise just how uncomfortable Europe has been under the Bush presidency. The confrontational, unilateralist stance, the murky underside of the ‘war on terror' - Guantanamo, waterboarding, extraordinary rendition - above all the illegal invasion of Iraq, have left us all discomfited and feeling unwashed.

Europe has split apart in the last eight years, with some countries uncomfortably following the Washington lead as loyal allies or seekers of influence, while others, equally uncomfortably, have stood aside.

Now Obama's election has brought with it hope that that this internal European rift may be healed. We can embrace the transatlantic alliance again with hope in our hearts rather than fear for the world.

So his election will change Europe too, as well as the United States. This was why it mattered to us who won last Tuesday. And herein lies our problem.

For in the 21st century, the American president is much more than just the president of the US alone. He, and to date the incumbents have always been male, is also the leader of the 'Free World.' This includes the transatlantic alliance and beyond it all those countries that espouse liberty and democracy. We are a global community that plays by similar rules and shares the same values. And yet the majority of our citizens are disenfranchised from any say over who leads us.

The Free World has to live with and pay for the consequences of America's actions around the world, but has no vote to influence those actions.

We are, indeed, in much the same position as the American colonists who rebelled against the British parliament in 1775, crying 'no taxation without representation.' They denied the right of the king to levy taxes when the colonies themselves were not represented in parliament.

The wider community of the Free World is equally devoid of representation in American councils, but we are taxed nonetheless. Not, of course, with a monetary levy, but in this global age we pay all the same. We have paid these last years for US belligerence. We have paid for US pollution and for US trade policies. And now we are also paying for the collapse of American finance.

Let me assure our American cousins that I readily acknowledge the debt that Europe owes to America in blood and money. We also ought to pay more towards our own defence. This does not however alter my point - which is that the election of an American president affects far more people than just those living in the 50 states.

How this democratic wrong might be redressed I do not know. Indeed, I don't believe it is even perceived in the USA. For all Mr Obama's rhetoric, America still sees itself as a land in splendid isolation, hardly aware of a world beyond its shores. Looking at the headline policy positions on the domestic websites of the two presidential contenders, Mr Obama mentions Europe only once; John McCain mentions Europe not at all.

This would not be the case here. Were we, in Europe, to have candidates for a European presidency, they would certainly be dwelling extensively on the USA and the transatlantic alliance.

Indeed, we remember the fawning letter composed just a few days ago by European foreign ministers and addressed to the US president-elect, before even the election had taken place, so eager are we to insist that Europe should not be forgotten in the presidential councils. Such is the imbalance of the transatlantic relationship.

So we have here a paradox: By and large, Americans are citizens of the US alone, little interested in events on the other side of their protective oceans. Nevertheless, their president speaks for the whole 'Free World.'

Europeans have far more of an informed global view. But of course we do not have a president. Nor could any European leader reasonably expect to attract 200,000 people to the Tiergarten for a speech on global issues. So there remains a transatlantic mismatch: they have the world president, we have the world citizens. Sooner or later we shall have to find a way of marrying the two.

President-elect Obama will have many problems to contend with when he takes office on 20 January. I don't want to add to them. One day we shall return to this wider democratic point. Meanwhile I send him my congratulations and best wishes.

The author is an independent commentator on European affairs


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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