Europe Is Obama's First 'Global Test'

President-elect Barack Obama is already facing his first global test. And it's not coming from the usual suspects like Iran or North Korea, but from America's "allies" in Europe.

European leaders have congratulated Obama on his election victory by sending him a six-page letter in which they benevolently "offer" the United States a "partnership of equals" in order to address global problems in the post-Bush era.

That's right: Europeans are calling on Obama to "accept" Europe as America's equal on the global stage. The idea behind this new man-to-man relationship with Washington was hatched by (surprise, surprise) France, which currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner says the reason for establishing an equal transatlantic partnership is that "the world has changed." Europe has suddenly realized that the United States "is not the only one concerned by the world's problems. The European Union has become more resolute.... We don't want to play a secondary role any more," says Kouchner.

Global Economic Power Grab

Europeans also say it's time to usher in a new global economic order. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a series of economic summits, the first of which is now set to take place in Washington DC on November 15. He says he wants the gathering to build from scratch a new financial and monetary framework, one that would replace the current system that is dominated by the United States with a new model far more to Europe's liking.

"Europe wants the summit before the end of the year. Europe wants it, Europe asks for it and Europe will get it," says Sarkozy. "Self-regulation to solve all problems, it's finished," Sarkozy says. "Laissez-faire, it's finished. The all-powerful market that is always right, it's finished.... It is necessary then for the state to intervene."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is even more succinct. He says the world needs a "new financial architecture for the global age." Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi proposes "rewriting the rules of international finance." The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, says: "We need a new global financial order." German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck says "Anglo-Saxon" capitalist system has run its course and that "the United States will lose its status as the superpower of the global financial system."

Welcome to the dawn of a new multipolar era, say Europeans. Not so fast, says US President George W Bush, who has poured cold water on Sarkozy's plans for a top-to-bottom revamp. "Our 21st century global economy continues to be regulated by laws written in the 20th century....We must also never lose sight of the enormous benefits delivered by the free enterprise system...democratic capitalism remains the greatest system ever devised," Bush says.

European Power Games

What's behind Europe's latest round of "let's play superpower make-believe?" European leaders are testing Obama's mettle, plain and simple; they want to see if he will bend more easily to the European will than did his predecessor. European leaders never wracked up the courage to ask President Bush directly for a partnership of equals because they knew he would have laughed them out of town.

Bush understood that Europeans were unable and unwilling to match their words with deeds. Faced early on in his presidency with the solemn responsibility to protect Americans from terrorism, Bush effectively told European leaders to "Put Up or Shut Up." Most Europeans decided to take their ball and go home. They then rode out the rest of the Bush Administration by salving their wounded pride with anti-Americanism.

If their past conduct is anything to go by, today's European leaders are about as interested in solving global problems as was Otto von Bismarck, who devoted his life to empire-building and the practice of Realpolitik. Today's European leaders are trying not only to revive the Roman Empire in the form of a unified Europe, but they are also seeking to rebalance global power in such a way that places Europe at the top of the international pecking order.

The main obstacle to European superpower ambitions is, of course, the United States, in whose likeness the present global system is made. Indeed, the unprecedented interest in the outcome of the US presidential elections in every corner of the globe has underscored once again that, even considering the current financial crisis, America's economic, political, military and cultural influence still remains second-to-none.

This is where Europe's six-page letter to Obama comes into play. All the high-minded post-modern verbiage about global solutions to global problems included in that document is the eurospeak way of saying that Europeans want a final say in how American power is exercised. It is what Europeans mean when they use the words "multilateralism" and "globalism."

Will Obama play ball the European way and agree to turn the levers of American power over to others? Or will he, like Bush before him, recognize the European demand for equal status with America for what it really is? Will Obama stroke European egos with the superpower recognition they crave so much? Or will Obama call their bluff and ask Europeans to pull their weight in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

Europeans seem to be hedging their bets. Sensing that the era of European free-riding may be coming to an end, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband says that Europe will now "make sure that our contribution in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in responding to the global financial crisis, is strong and clear and in close alliance" with the United States. But if Obama is anywhere as smart as Europeans seem to think he is, he will tell the Europeans: "Actions speak louder than words."

In the meanwhile, Europeans are trying their best to woo Obama by mimicking his own rhetorical flourish. "There is a need to open a new chapter in global harmony, global balance, global change," waxes Kouchner. Europe wants to work with Washington to shape "an inclusive global agenda," says Miliband.

Will President Obama concede where President Bush did not? Will he pass his first global test? It's impossible to know until Obama moves into the White House. But the stakes are far higher than many Americans may realize.

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group
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