Obama or Romney: What differences for Europe?

With the tightening U.S. Presidential race in its final stages, Europeans are coming to grips with the prospect of a Romney foreign policy.  President Obama remains a slight favorite according to most pundits and a second Obama term would see changes in personnel and focus that could have modest impact on the transatlantic relationship. A Romney victory would lead to greater uncertainty and unease in Europe, at least at the outset, but could also open new opportunities on the EU-U.S. trade front.

Observers speculating on a Romney administration or a second Obama term should bear in mind the many constants of the transatlantic relationship, and the often more rhetorical than substantive distinctions between the two U.S. parties.  The latter became unusually clear during the final Presidential debate as Romney appeared eager to stress his general agreement with Obama on major policies issues including Afghanistan and Iraq.  Despite his early rhetoric during the ‘honeymoon’ period of his Presidency, during which he won rave reviews in Europe after stressing the need for U.S. leadership via consultation of allies and multilateral cooperation, widely interpreted as a rebuke of his predecessor, Obama also followed George W. Bush in both experiencing and causing disappointment in the transatlantic relationship.[1]

From early in 2009, the Obama Administration expressed dissatisfaction with European contributions to NATO’s capabilities and particularly to its efforts in Afghanistan.  This theme of burden sharing also runs across Republican and Democratic administrations, but seemed even more jarring given Obama’s initial reception.  Similarly, Europe has been disappointed by Obama’s climate change policy. Explanations that the administration is limited by what can be passed through Congress does little to dispel the impression that Obama gave up on the issue at an early stage.  Though counter-terrorism is correctly cited as a major transatlantic success story, Europeans have also been concerned by Obama’s failure to move forward on closing Guantànamo, the U.S.’ increasing reliance on targeted killings via drone strikes, and disagreements over the handling of private data by U.S. and EU authorities.

This has been balanced by other aspects of enhanced transatlantic cooperation – in the area of development policy, for example, where yet another transatlantic dialogue has been launched – and what appears to be a good working relationship between Secretary of State Clinton and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton.   In general, however, Europe has felt that the affections it bestowed on Obama have not been returned.[2]  This sentiment reached its peak during the Spanish EU Presidency, when tentative plans for a first half 2010 U.S.-EU Summit in Madrid were scrapped.

European disappointment is based not only in Obama’s policies but also in what some have argued is a mis-reading of his fundamental approach to international partners.  As Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney wrote in 2009, Obama is best viewed as being unsentimental and instrumentalist in his view of Europe and other potential partners.  Though the Obama administration (which Shapiro subsequently joined as an advisor to Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Phil Gordon) would disagree with the contention that Obama is positioning Europe for a ‘post-American’ international system, few would argue with the observation that, “He will attend to those who can be useful, not the merely sympathetic. Glad-handing Europeans with nothing to offer will be a low priority.”[3]  The European ability to consistently demonstrate such usefulness remains in question, despite hopes that the Lisbon Treaty and its institutional changes would lead to at least a modestly more coherent EU face internationally.  At the November 2011 EU-U.S. Summit, Obama and EU leaders did appear more in agreement than had been the case in 2010, issuing statements on a wide range of issues, from cooperation toward the Arab Spring to energy policy, and the U.S. has expressed appreciation for the role that Ashton has played in the P5 +1 talks with Iran. But such good feeling is more than offset by the never-ending saga of the euro crisis, which Obama advisor and campaign strategist David Axelrod identified as one of two factors (with unbridled Republican Super PAC spending) that could derail Obama’s re-election.

At the same time, the Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ toward Asia, both in the security realm where U.S. defense strategy has added focus on the South China Sea and in trade and investment via the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated, has created new worries for a Europe that is always fearful of being taken for granted.  Secretary Clinton and other Obama officials have repeatedly stressed that this is not intended as a slight to Europe. Clinton has said that Europe remains the U.S. ‘partner of first resort’ and underlined the remarkable ‘breadth and depth’ of transatlantic cooperation toward Afghanistan, Iran, and the Arab Spring. [4] Despite such reassurances, Europeans continue to fear with considerable justification that the U.S. regards Asia as the region of the future.  To date, European leaders have publicly maintained that the U.S. pivot is a supplement and not an alternative to the transatlantic relationship.

Despite such reservations over Obama’s future direction, Europeans have been far less receptive to the foreign policy vision of Republican nominee Mitt Romney.  During the 2012 U.S. Presidential campaign, Republican nominee Mitt Romney has sharply criticized not only Obama’s economic record but also his foreign and security policies.  Many of those criticisms are also implicit jabs at the EU’s international approach.  Romney charges that Obama has generally failed to provide traditional U.S. leadership on the international stage, and in particular fails to understand U.S. ‘exceptionalism’ and the accompanying responsibility of promoting U.S. interests and defending U.S. allies unapologetically, while speaking truth to U.S. foes.  Romney initially set out his views during the Republican primary contest, via an October 2011 foreign policy white paper and an accompanying speech at the Citadel in South Carolina.[5]  His policy is based on four ‘core principles’: (1) speaking and acting with clarity and resolve, (2) promoting open markets, representative government, and respect for human rights, (3) applying the full spectrum of U.S. hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict, and (4) exercising U.S. leadership in multilateral organizations and alliances, but with the stipulation that “we always reserve the right to act alone to protect our national interests.” [6]

Romney delivered these views in the context of a contentious Republican nomination fight, competing with his Republican rivals in issuing the most complete denunciation of Obama’s foreign policy.  However, at the time several analysts noted that, in terms of substance, Romney’s positions had many similarities with those of Obama. His white paper and remarks were heavy on rhetorical put-downs but light on explanations of what Romney would do differently.[7] As the campaign progressed and Romney secured the nomination, he has amplified three elements of disagreement.

First, the leadership issue, latching on the ‘leading from behind’ definition of U.S. policy during the intervention in Libya to depict Obama as ceding U.S. primacy to other countries. An auxiliary of this critique is the charge, applied to Iran, Egypt, and now Syria that the Obama administration has failed to back democratic movements in each state.  The Romney campaign argues this is a departure from longstanding and bipartisan support of human rights and democratization.  Second, in criticism of Obama’s approach to Iran, Russia, Venezuela and other countries regarded as fundamentally opposed to U.S. interests, Romney contends that Obama has been too eager to seek negotiation and dialogue and too reticent to state U.S. concerns.  Third, Romney and his campaign surrogates and advisors have charged that Obama has failed to consult and reassure longstanding allies.  Israel is the most prominent example cited, but Romney has also consistently referenced the Obama decision to alter missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic. This theme was a major component of Romney’s late July 2012 tour abroad with stops in the UK, Israel, and Poland.

While he has been eager to cite certain European countries he argues Obama has slighted, Romney is less likely to discuss relations with Europe more generally.  The October 2011 White Paper contains no mention of Europe, the European Union or, most curiously given traditional Republican security concerns, of NATO.  His August 30 2012 nomination acceptance speech similarly referred only to Obama’s alleged insult of Poland over missile defense.  Romney’s most frequent reference to Europe during the campaign has been negative, arguing  that President Obama is leading the U.S. toward the over-regulation, active government, and high taxes of European ‘socialism’ causing the crisis of the euro.  His nomination address similarly referred to Greece as a negative example.  When asked in think tank settings or media interviews, however, Romney’s advisors and Republican supporters have offered reassurances regarding his views of Europe.

On the eve of Romney’s foreign tour, former George W. Bush Administration Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Richard Williamson engaged in a debate at the Brookings Institution opposite former Obama Under Secretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy. Asked about Romney’s view of Europe, Williamson said that Europe clearly fell under Romney’s principle of ‘keeping friends and allies close.’[8]  He followed this with a note of concern that Germany had not participated in action against Libya, a sign of discord within NATO, but added that, “Europe has been and remains or most important alliance.”

Williamson and other members of the Romney advisory team prominent in the administration of George W. Bush, including former UN Ambassador John Bolton and former Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Dan Senor, represent the continuing influence of neo-conservatives within the Republican Party.  They currently also seem to hold the upper hand within the Romney campaign, as compared to the less ideological ‘traditionalists’ who had also held senior positions under President George H.W. Bush. [9]  Robert Zoellick, recently retired as the President of the World Bank and now the dean of this group, was the focus of a minor controversy when he was appointed head of the Romney foreign policy transition team, responsible for staffing the State Department and other agencies should Romney defeat Obama.  According to an unidentified Romney foreign policy advisor speaking on background to Josh Rogin, author of the Foreign Policy Cable blog, “Mitt Romney’s made clear that he has conservative views on foreign policy and defense and those aren’t the views of Pragmatic Bob.  I’ve been reassured that he is walled off from policy, but he’s an aggressive guy and he has his sights set on being secretary of state…”[10]

The prominence of Zoellick and former Secretary Rice, who gave a well received address during the Republican National Convention nominating Romney, suggests that this tension will continue.  Despite frequent references to Europe as a negative example during the campaign, it appears that one of the original architects of the Transatlantic Declaration and the Secretary of State leading the turn toward Europe in the second Administration of George W. Bush will play prominent roles during a Romney administration, if not formally in office then in an advisory capacity. This indicates that Europe as partner in multilateral forums and in forming ‘coalitions of the relevant’ toward Syria and other issues could be an important element of a Romney foreign and security policy.[11]  However, the likely leading role of neo-conservative advisors could lead to rhetorical and sometimes substantive disagreements with Europe over the best modes of international cooperation, compared to the current nuclear negotiations with Iran under Obama, and particularly where the UN is concerned.
Particularly following Romney’s visits to the UK and Poland, and his August 30, 2012 nomination speech statement criticizing the Obama ‘re-set’ policy and calling for a more forceful U.S. stand toward Russia, repeatedly echoed by his foreign policy advisors, it has also been suggested that a Romney Administration would have a steep learning curve in addressing post-Cold War Europe and the post-Lisbon European Union.[12]  Those potential difficulties are offset by what appears to be a receptive Romney position regarding free trade, including an agreement with the EU.  As indicated earlier, Romney cites free trade as one of his core principles for U.S. economic recovery, and his leading trade advisors have said he is eager to pursue FTAs.  Though they have also said his initial focus will be on completing FTAs within the Western Hemisphere, they add that he will also pursue Trade Promotion Authority from Congress (which provides for an up-or-down vote with no opportunity for amendment) which could also be applied to any trade treaty negotiated with the EU.[13]

The identity of the next U.S. President will have substantial impact on transatlantic relations.  Most Europeans hope that Obama will win.  But looking beyond campaign rhetoric, it is also clear that either a second Obama or first Romney administration and a Europe still dealing with the euro sovereign debt crisis will find areas of disagreement and selective cooperation, while moving toward a longer-term partnership that addresses the challenges posed by the rise of the BRICs.  For Obama, cooperation in the foreign and security realm will likely be more pronounced, with views closer to those of Europeans on Iran and other issues.  If, as expected, Secretary Clinton steps down, that will create some uncertainty of continuity in Obama’s policy, but that would likely be short-lived if a successor such as current Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (a rumored front-runner) is selected.  The choice of UN Ambassador Susan Rice would be less reassuring to Europe.

A Romney administration will likely find more disagreement with Europe on some issues, particularly where the need for multilateral cooperation is concerned, but could be more in tune with the EU regarding trade policy.  And though Obama is more likely to pursue structured multilateral cooperation,  it is extremely unlikely that he will have sufficient support in Congress to move forward more rapidly on the European priority of climate change.  The role of Congress and its ability to constrain the policy options available to any U.S. president is an understudied aspect of transatlantic relations and could play an even more important role in the future.   Similarly, leaders in both the U.S. and Europe are subject to public opinion, which, for example, has recently converged regarding the need to end large-scale military operations in Afghanistan.[14]

It is more difficult to surmise whether and how a second Obama or first Romney administration will seek to restructure the transatlantic relationship to create a more strategic and purposeful approach to the rise of the BRICs and other shared interests.  In a second term, Obama may follow many of his predecessors and invest even more time in trying to find a way forward in the Middle East Peace Process and in the Middle East generally, a portfolio where Europe can help.   Romney could find that Europe is even more important than he had anticipated in pushing a free trade agenda forward.  What is clear is that both sides have to adjust to a new global distribution of power and interests. The sense that Europe and the U.S. can accomplish whatever goals they set has passed, but the limits of working outside of that relationship are also clearer.


[1] For a review of the first year of the transatlantic relationship under Obama, see the Council on Foreign Relations discussion with Assistant Secretary of State Phil Gordon, December 9, 2009.  Transcript available on the CFR web site, http://www.cfr.org/eu/us-europe-partnership/p20980.
[2] See Barroso Interview The London Times, July 15, 2010 with James Harding Editor of the London Times; Nile Gardiner, “Europe Falls out of love with Obama” Guardian, July 15 2010
[3] Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney, ‘How Europe Can be Heard in Washington,‘ Financial Times November 15 2009.  This summarizes the main arguments in their longer 2009 European Council on Foreign Relations study, ‘Toward a Post-American Europe: A Power Audit of EU-US Relations.’
[4] Secretary Clinton remarks at Euro-Atlantic Community Initiative, Munich, February 4, 2012.
[5] See “An American Century: A Strategy to Secure America’s Enduring Interests and Ideals,” Romney Campaign White Paper, October 7, 2011.  Available via the Romney Campaign web site, www.mittromney.com.
[6] Romney October 7 2011 speech at the Citadel, Charleston, South Carolina.
[7] See James Joyner, “Romney’s Realist Foreign Policy is a lot like Obama’s,” Atlantic magazine, October 8 2011.
[8] ‘The Obama and Romney foreign policy agendas: a discussion with the candidates’ leading advisors,’ Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, July 25, 2005.  Transcript available at www.brookings.edu.
[9] See David J. Rothkopf, “The Bushies are back, playing for Team Romney,” Washington Post, September 2, 2012, page B1.
[10] Foreign Policy web site, www.foreignpolicy.com, August 8, 2012.
[11] See Josh Rogin, “Romney campaign: No to Syria no-fly zone for now,” Foreign Policy, August 28, 2012, www.foreignpolicy.com.
[12] Annette Heuser and Tyson Barker, “Romney’s Transatlantic Policy needs a reboot,” Spiegel Online, www.spiegel.de, July 25, 2012.  This impression is furthered by his advisors’ multiple references to the ‘Soviet Union’ when discussing Russia, and also to ‘Czechoslovakia.’
[13] “Romney backs Latin American Free Trade Zone, advisor says,’ Bloomberg News, August 22, 2012.
[14] See the annual Transatlantic Trends survey produced by the German Marshall Fund, www.transatlantictrends.org.


The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.