international analysis and commentary

Why the US has not drifted away from Europe’s problems

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With less than two years left in President Barack Obama’s final term in office, the debate about his foreign policy legacy is now well underway in Washington. Early on in the Obama presidency, there was much talk about the so-called American “pivot” to Asia and whether it would come at the cost of the transatlantic partnership. Today, almost all observers agree that the United States will eventually reduce its involvement in Europe and – in the long run – spend an increasing amount of energy and resources on Asia. Yet, over the past few years, Europe has continued to take up a more prominent space on the agenda of the “first Pacific president” than initially expected – or maybe hoped for.

This development is most noticeable vis-à-vis the crisis in Ukraine and the West’s relations with Russia. Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, Moscow’s behavior once again ranks near the top on the list of foreign policy concerns in the US capital. And apprehensions are not limited to policy circles in Washington, D.C. A recent Gallup poll found that Americans increasingly see Russia as the US’s number one enemy. Similarly, Russia’s favorability ratings among the American public are now the worst since the fall of the Soviet Union.

In recent months, the Obama administration – at least in public – has largely taken a backseat and has let German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande lead direct talks with Moscow and Kiev. However, growing public concerns, as reflected in the polls, combined with an increasingly heated domestic discussion over a more forceful approach, could soon alter the White House’s calculation. The seemingly perpetual nature of American election cycles may additionally fuel this debate, as many of the candidates for the 2016 presidential elections will aim to present themselves as more hawkish than the current President. In light of this, further aggression by Russia may bring the US, as the ultimate guarantor of NATO’s Article 5 commitment, back to a more engaged role at the forefront of European security.

Yet the actions of a revisionist Russia are not the only disquieting development diverting Washington’s focus to Europe. After a few months of relative calm, the recent Greek elections and the subsequent negotiation drama surrounding the country’s loan extensions, have reminded American policymakers and the business community that the euro crisis remains unsettled. Annoyance at the perceived inability of European leaders to solve the problem is prevalent. Such sentiment is only exacerbated when, time after time, high-level American policymakers wade into the discussion, only to be ignored or, in some cases, even rebuffed, by their European counterparts. 

It is against this backdrop of a Europe once again facing economic and security threats that Washington looks at the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is currently being negotiated between the US and the European Union. On the one hand, the US views trade policy as an important strategic tool and TTIP as a way to bind the transatlantic partners together in the face of Russian attempts to drive a wedge between them, for example on energy issues. On the other hand, doubts remain about Europe’s chances of escaping its economic malaise. Further, the often-negative debate around TTIP in several European countries has increased concerns in Washington about the ability of the European side to negotiate and successfully push an ambitious trade deal through what is seen as a delicate ratification process in the European Parliament, the European Council, and finally all 28 member states.

In contrast, the American side is optimistic that it will soon be able to clear any remaining domestic hurdles on the way to a transatlantic trade agreement. TTIP has not yet resulted in any major public discussion in the US, and attention has therefore shifted almost entirely to Congress, where legislators are preparing to introduce a bi-partisan bill to grant Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) to the President. Contingent on the final details of such legislation, TPA would significantly speed up the ratification process of any potential TTIP agreement, as it would likely allow for only an up-or-down vote by lawmakers and guarantee timely Congressional consideration. Although TPA is opposed by a number of Democratic legislators as well as a broad group of NGOs, their criticism is mostly focused on the simultaneously negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In any case, passage of TPA seems likely in the current climate. With TPA in place, chances for a successful ratification of TTIP in the United States would increase dramatically. Should this occur, the onus to deliver on TTIP, and the risk of being blamed for any potential failure of negotiations, would suddenly fall on European shoulders.

Given the importance of these three key areas – the Ukraine/Russia crisis, ongoing troubles in the Eurozone, and the prospects of TTIP – it is likely that the current US administration, as well as its successor, will continue to keep a close eye on developments in Europe. Yet, for the foreseeable future, the view across the Atlantic will mostly be shaped by concern.