In a recent article (August 13, 2008) Le Monde foreign affairs columnist David Vernet is pouring buckets of cold water on these enthusiastic Europeans, Germans in particular, that seem to expect miracles from an Obama victory in the November 4 presidential elections.
While acknowledging that Obama’s discourse on transatlantic dialogue and community of values has a nicer sound than Bush’s unilateralist and autistic policies he warns that the Democratic candidate still thinks fundamentally in terms of U.S. leadership and not of equal partnership. Recalling Bill Clinton’s “friendly unilateralism” Daniel Vernet emphasizes in fact the continuity between the various U.S. administrations, a continuity characterized by the U.S. determination to act according to its own perceptions and interests.
Daniel Vernet's call to reality is of course necessary: no one can deny that the U.S. has permanent interests and that Barack Obama will have to adapt his campaign promises to the realities of power, inside and outside of the U.S.
However the real importance of a new presidential team in Washington does not lie primarily in the development of a better convergence per se between the two sides of the Atlantic. It resides in the contents of the policies that will be developed and applied. Who among liberals and progressives would applaud if the renewed transatlantic friendship would be based on common approaches that would weaken Western commitments to development, democracy and human rights? Transatlantism is only commendable if it reinforces the values that the West proclaims to defend. Although it has been degraded by President Bush, unilateralism is not always a sin. Who would object to unilateralism if it was meant to prevent genocide. The unilateralism of solidarity is better than the multilateralism of passivity.
The promise of a Barack Obama victory lies in the boost it might provide to these European politicians and activists that try to develop a more progressive and ethical foreign policy, against very more conservative or ruthlessly and short-sightedly “realist” Europeans.
The terrain of foreign policy offers few boulevards for radical departures from the hard-headed rules of geopolitics but gradual changes, if sustained by strong principles and values, can be found in the footpaths and the “blue highways”, as writer William Least Heat-Moon would say, of the world.
The decisive change that might result from an Obama’s triumph at the polls will not be tested in the U.S. relationship towards Europe. It will take place in the U.S.. The parting of waters between the two administrations should be the restoration of Washington’s respect of international human rights and humanitarian law.
That essential step will make more to improve a meaningful and respectable transatlantic relationship than a promise to consult the Europeans.