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Obama’s last trip to Europe, and the burdens that divide

Barack Obama’s visit to Poland this week for the NATO Summit will likely be his last time in Europe as President writes Derek Chollet. And in many ways, it is a bookend to his trip to the continent exactly eight years ago, in July 2008 as a candidate for president, when he spoke before 200,000 enthralled Germans packed into Berlin’s Tiergarten and delivered a message of hope. Then, Germans (and Europeans generally) were desperate for a new kind of American leadership and believed Obama embodied all their dreams about the United States. Now, Europeans (and Americans) are anxious about their future.

In 2008, Obama reaffirmed the importance of strong transatlantic ties, and in many ways, the Berlin speech laid the foundation for Obama’s approach to the transatlantic relationship as president. Despite all the talk of “pivots” and “rebalancing,” Europe has remained America’s partner of first resort. This is something I experienced first-hand during my time serving the Obama Administration at the State Department, the White House, and Pentagon: on almost every major foreign policy issue, Washington’s European partners played an indispensable role.

Yet the speech also set the stage for the mutual disappointment that has riddled the transatlantic relationship during Obama’s presidency. In the 2008 Berlin speech, Obama made clear that partnership had to be a two-way street; that the world presented common burdens that, he said, “a change of leadership in Washington will not lift.” In fact, Obama promised things would only get tougher because, “in this century, Americans and Europeans will be required to do more, not less.”

So just as Obama could not meet the wildly unrealistic hopes Europeans placed on him to wave his magic wand and change the world instantly, many Europeans still proved unwilling to make the tough choices to meet the challenges ahead. This helps explain Obama’s open frustrations with allies who are “free riders.”

In 2008, with geopolitics increasingly defined by the Middle East and Asia and transatlantic relations riddled with squabbling and bitterness, the key question seemed to be whether Europe still mattered to the United States. Obama answered emphatically that it did. But in 2016, with the confluence of crises stressing the continent more than at any time since the Cold War, the question is more fundamental: whether the “Europe” as we have come to know it will continue to exist.

For the United States, the consequences are profound. It is true, as President Obama has recently stressed, that the existential question of the European Union’s post-Brexit future does not directly alter the fundamentals of transatlantic security relations. NATO remains strong, and especially in the wake of the Brexit vote, expect even greater emphasis in Warsaw on the message of unity and resolve. U.S. efforts to reassure European partners and deter Russian aggression – such as the deployment of additional forces in NATO’s east, efforts to work with Ukraine, or the quadrupling of U.S. defense spending in Europe – will move forward unchanged. And the U.S. and its European partners will continue their mission in Afghanistan, and announce ways that NATO will become more involved in the counter-ISIL campaign, whether by deploying such Alliance assets as AWACS or training troops in Iraq.

Yet it in the days ahead, it will be harder for the Europeans to do more. Even if the most dire predictions of Europe’s post-Brexit future don’t come true – for example, if European economies don’t suffer significantly, and if no other countries seek their own exit – the future promises a Europe that is even more distracted and divided.

As a practical matter, with so much of Europe’s political energies and leadership capacity consumed by the existential issue of its own future, there will be less bandwidth available to work with the United States to address global challenges. In fact, during the past few years we have already seen that happen with respect to the U.K. as it has been preoccupied with its internal issues.

The U.S. has an interest in preventing this from happening, so this week expect Obama to pledge his support to do what he can to help during his final six months in office. But Washington’s tools are limited. The U.S. will remain engaged in Europe; despite the assertion that the U.S. has tried to pivot away from the region, it is even more engaged today in military, economic, and diplomatic terms than a decade ago. Ultimately, though, the EU’s future is for its member states to decide. The U.S. can only watch from afar.

In Berlin in 2008, Obama stressed that in a world of so many challenges, the “burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.” As Obama heads to Warsaw in 2016, the worry is that these burdens are becoming too much for Europe, and therefore will ultimately drive us apart.

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