This is posted at "Comment is Free".
The prospect of a President Obama is one step closer with the conclusion of the Democrats' bloody primary contest. Few outside observers could fail to be impressed with the symbolism of a black man vying for the American presidency. Possibly fewer – but I am among them – will experience a moment of Schadenfreude at the failure of some unscrupulous campaigning by the husband of Obama's closest rival for the nomination.
But European supporters of the transatlantic alliance have grounds for concern at the foreign policy instincts of the Democratic nominee. Obama's lack of experience signifies little. Much the same could have been said, and was said, of Harry Truman. Yet Truman skilfully reengineered America's foreign relations in highly unpromising circumstances, to the enduring benefit of the republic and its allies.
The problem with Obama is that he evinces little interest in the role of America's European allies. There is a paradox here. Obama makes much (as he did in a long essay in Foreign Affairs last year) of the need to "rebuild our ties to our allies in Europe and Asia and strengthen our partnerships throughout the Americas and Africa". Yet his approach to foreign policy shows scant regard for the opinions of European governments or the requirements of collective security. It is as if President Bush's gratuitously brusque unilateralism has been retained but with a smiley face.
Obama invokes European governments when he wishes to argue against the Bush administration's policies in Iraq. He overstates the degree of European consensus on that issue, and thereby gives an implicit signal that the UK, Spain, Denmark and many countries in the former eastern bloc are not among his primary concerns in transatlantic relations. He also gives the unmistakable impression that America's European allies serve as a stage prop in his campaign rather than being part of a dialogue that he ought to be pursuing energetically.
Last December, Salon magazine reported that the Senate foreign relations committee's subcommittee on European affairs had convened no policy hearings since Obama assumed its chairmanship the previous January. Obama has a busy timetable, but his indifference to Europe appears to be ingrained rather than residual. In one of the most bizarre developments of the campaign, Obama has – as the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed out recently – elevated a gaffe to a policy, and then to a doctrine.
The original gaffe, made in a candidates' debate last July, was that, as president, Obama would be prepared to meet without precondition the leaders of Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea. That position was, as Hillary Clinton said at the time, "very irresponsible and frankly naive".
Diplomacy is not about being friendly. It is about achieving goals through negotiation. If the leader of the western alliance gives up a bargaining chip in advance, then he is making it less likely that western diplomacy will work. In the case of Iran, diplomacy has been conducted by the EU three (Britain, France and Germany) since 2003, with the aim of persuading the Islamic Republic, through a mix of incentives and penalties, to cease permanently its domestic activities in uranium enrichment. (The west has accepted a compromise proposal from Russia for some uranium enrichment activity to be moved from Iran to Russia.)
How does Obama think the calculus of Iranian decision-making will be affected by a unilateral concession by him? How does he think European governments will take it? Has he asked them? If not, does he intend to? Will he take account of the British foreign secretary's reported "queries" on this stance? Or are European friends of the US expected to fall into line behind whatever the White House adopts as declaratory policy?
These may appear pedantic criticisms of what I hope is merely campaign rhetoric. But Obama has insistently claimed to be interested in rebuilding America's relations with Europe. That desirable aim cannot be effected on his terms alone.