Remember all those polls during the Presidential Campaign, how Europe desperately wanted Barack Obama to win. How the European leadership fawned fought for the attention of then Senator Obama when he made his summer tour tour around the world? President Obama promised that was that he was going to “repair” our relationship with Europe (as if they needed to be repaired) after years of that “cowboy” George “W” Bush.
Ever since he was inaugurated, President Obama has done his best to diss our allies in Europe. There was that famous “non joint press conference” when Gordon Brown came to visit, refusing Nicolas Sarkozy offer to share a meal when Obama was a guest in the country and his economic battles with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last week the German magazine Der Spiegel wrote an article wondering if Merkel and Obama were frienemies.
Almost one year into the Obama Presidency, our “relationship repairer-in-chief” has done more to increase the divide between Europe and the US than to bring us together. For the first time in decades France has a Pro-US President, but our relationship with France has regressed because their President sees Barack Obama as weak and indecisive:
Published: December 27 2009 18:02 | Last updated: December 27 2009 18:02
Nicolas Sarkozy, the most pro-American president of France for half a century, has gone cold on Barack Obama, the most popular American leader in France in generations.
A year ago Mr Sarkozy was engaged in a tussle among European leaders anxious to be the first to secure a meeting with the freshly elected Mr Obama. Mr Sarkozy described Mr Obama as “my friend” after meeting him just once as a senator.
But the French president has since clashed with his US counterpart on a series of issues, raising the question of whether Mr Sarkozy is reverting to the more Gaullist, anti-American posture of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
“He has now shifted from a pro-Bush position to an anti-Obama position,” said Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, international affairs spokesman for the opposition Socialists. “Neither France nor the western world have anything to gain from Barack Obama’s failure. It seems as if the president is betting on this failure, which isolates France in Europe.”
The French government has refused a US request to send more fighting troops to Afghanistan, while several other European allies are planning to do so.
Mr Sarkozy has expressed his frustration at the White House’s perceived equivocation over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the priority that Mr Obama attaches to the long-term goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
Mr Sarkozy’s frustration boiled over in September in a remarkably barbed speech to the UN General Assembly.
“We are right to talk about the future but before the future there is the present, and the present is two major nuclear crises,” Mr Sarkozy said, alluding to Iran and North Korea. “We are living in a real world, not a virtual world,” he added, in a clear dig at Mr Obama’s disarmament ambitions.
Policy differences have been compounded by friction over choreography and symbolism. The Elysée still smarts at Mr Obama’s visit to France in June for the commemoration of the D-Day landings, when he declined an additional bilateral event with Mr Sarkozy.
The French press often publishes Mr Sarkozy’s unflattering comments about Mr Obama’s lack of prior government experience, his alleged difficulty in reaching decisions or his domestic electoral setbacks.
Personality differences also count. Mr Sarkozy is intuitive, impulsive and direct while French officials consider Mr Obama “reserved”.
The main acts of France’s rapprochement with Washington – a tougher line on Iran and a promise to rejoin Nato’s military command structure – came before Mr Obama. But Elysée officials warn against observing the relationship through the prism of personalities.
“Many of the comments that we read here and there reflect differences of temperament rather than fundamental differences,” said a senior official. “On the fundamentals we are much closer to President Obama than we were to President Bush.”
On financial regulation, climate change, global governance, or even Iran, the positions of Paris and Washington have converged, the official said.
Like his predecessor, Mr Sarkozy plays up differences with the US for domestic purposes. But there is a crucial difference. Whereas Mr Chirac’s stance towards the US was determined by suspicion of US power, current French frustration is aimed at Washington’s hesitancy or even weakness.
“The paradox of the situation is that in terms of the relationship with the US, he can do a Chirac in that he can criticise the Americans but he can do it from a position that is 180 degrees different from Chirac,” said François Heisbourg, an adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris-based think tank.
“He can play to a habitual anti-American standpoint but not from a position that is fundamentally anti-American.”