international analysis and commentary

Obama’s tour: the meaning of Europe


President Barack Obama crossed the Atlantic on Sunday night for a tour of the Old Continent including stops in Ireland, France and Poland. However, the only thing European that Americans have on their minds these days is the fall of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In fact, Washington seems to view its own foreign policy toward Europe solely in light of events across the (wider) Middle East. So why is Obama visiting Europe for the 8th time since he took office? The reason: it’s an opportunity to gain support from the old allies on certain specific issues and to pursue a bit of personal diplomacy.

Obama’s stop in Ireland is largely personal. He will visit the village of Moneygall (population 350) – the hometown of his great-great-great maternal grandfather – where he will meet with distant relatives and have a beer at a local pub. Then he will head back to Dublin where he will give a speech on the College Green at Trinity College – the same location where Bill Clinton spoke to a massive crowd in 1995. Obama aides have mentioned that the speech will not be political – rather about the ties between the US and Ireland – and it will be a part of a rally that includes concerts and appearances by famous actors and athletes. Following in Clinton’s footsteps, Obama will likely use the event to boost his own star power and play to the hearts of Irish-American voters back home.

Next Obama will head to London for two days in a trip that will include a state dinner at Buckingham Palace. On the heels of the extensively-covered royal wedding, this engagement (and especially the photo-ops) should generate even more star power for Obama back home. On a political note, the visit will allow the US President to reinforce the “special relationship” and meet with Prime Minister David Cameron about the developments in the Middle East – especially the situation in Libya. Obama will also address both houses of parliament to further elaborate on his latest Middle East speech.

Then the American President will head to France for the G8 and here some real work will begin. Besides the financial woes of the powerhouse countries, Japanese PM Naoto Kan is in a political mess after the Fukushima disaster, both Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy face elections next year, as does either Vladimir Putin or Dmitry Medvedev – whichever decides to run for president. So they all will be trying to use the occasion to boost their appeal and to show the world that they are solving the world’s problems – though they will likely conclude little in practice.

The President will, however, be forced to face the issue of who will be the next IMF leader. As the Europeans quickly agreed that they would support a European successor, Obama has not endorsed any candidate – leaving a window of opportunity for leaders from emerging powers. This could quickly become a point of friction between the transatlantic allies as the US holds heavy voting power in the IMF. During the G8, Obama will be walking on pins and needles as talks will certainly cover the future of the fund.

Also in France, discussions about Libya are sure to come up – especially on burden-sharing – as France and Britain are pressuring Obama to make a bigger contribution to the efforts and vice versa. Though NATO is formally taking the lead, the lack of clarity in the mission and its accomplishments has reflected on those behind the operation – and may cause further tension in the region. Add to this Obama’s May 19 speech on the Middle East. As it appears to have been unsuccessful in the Arab world, Obama may use the European tour to gain support for the ideas expressed in the speech – especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Key here could be Angela Merkel who, while using the occasion to buff over the rough edges caused by her no-vote on the mission in Libya, may also help Obama find a compromise on how to approach the September UN vote on Palestinian statehood.

And finally he is off to Poland where the focus of talks will likely be Poland’s upcoming EU presidency and, of course, the euro crisis. Obama will also address the US visa waiver program and how he will make the process easier for Poles – an issue Obama has promised to resolve before finishing his term. But in reality, the trip is a make-up session for Obama’s absence at President Lech Kaczynski’s funeral last year. He was unable to attend due to the volcanic ash incident that grounded flights and left much of Europe under a dark cloud.

In the end, Obama will likely spend these six days trying to prove that he is a competent decision-making American leader. After his victory in the death of Osama bin Laden, his Middle East speech and with the 2012 elections on the horizon, Obama will take advantage of the tour to rally consensus from his European friends and, at the same time, show Amercian voters that he is no longer a European president.