Learning From Europe

Some nice points from Ilan Goldenberg:

But while Obama’s election carries dramatic symbolic value, we also need to demonstrate to our allies that the way we govern and conduct foreign policy will substantively change. That means not cramming a list of demands down their throats in the first 100 days. It means building on the goodwill and sending the right signals that we care about their priorities. We should listen to their priorities early on and do some relatively easy things that send the right message on issues such as international arms control treaties, global warming treaties, international law and development issues. The signal needs to be sent that we won’t be obstructionist on these issues every chance we get and that we’re even willing to engage aggressively on them — not because they are our top priority but because we respect the views and interests of our allies and are willing to listen.

Over time and even in the relatively short term, there is no question that we should ask the Europeans to provide more troops for Afghanistan and also ask them to remove the caveats that some countries have placed on their forces. But let’s not forget that they have just dealt with the Bush administration for eight years, and while the general population is easily swayed foreign officials will need more clear proof that there really is a new approach coming from Washington.

Since I’m here in Europe and have had some opportunity to discuss things with Swiss officials, and have had some other contracts with European politicians and diplomats over the past twelve months, I would add two more points to this. One is simply that most Americans don’t fully grasp the volume of petty bullshit that European foreign ministries have been putting up with for the past eight years. Donald Rumsfeld’s bizarre decision to casually dismiss a large set of crucial American military allies and trading partners (along with the whole of European public opinion) as “old Europe” was one high-profile example, but there’s lower level interactions in large set of state capitals and it’s important for the entire mindset to be changed and replaced with the common sense dictate that if you want people to cooperate with you, you ought to ask nicely.

The other thing is that even though the US progressive community has a lot of very smart people in it and a lot of very good ideas, it’s just in the nature of things that, having been out of power for the past eight years, we have somewhat limited practical experience coping with some of these issues. Nicholas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, Jan Balkenende, and Silvio Berlusconi have all led governments with soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan for some time now; Barack Obama hasn’t and it would be basic courtesy as well as good practice to genuinely solicit their opinion of the situation and take what they say into account before presenting them with our view. Clearly, the US will be taking the lead one way or another in Afghanistan, but just as the transition process will involve listening to what Bush’s people have to say, we should listen to our partners as well. Similarly, if we’re going to initiate some kind of diplomatic dialogue with the Iranians, some of the Swiss officials who’ve been representing US interests in Iran in the absence of a formal American diplomatic presence may have something useful to say.

At the end of the day, I think this kind of approach will bear much more fruit in terms of European cooperation and will probably bear some fruit in terms of substantive knowledge. There’s no need for a brand-new president to treat veteran political leaders in longtime allied countries as if they’re unruly pets who need to be brought to heel — the hunger on this continent for a better relationship with the United States is quite evident and everyone understands that we’re a big important country whose views need to be taken very seriously. Under the circumstances, it makes a lot of sense to try to be polite and respectful.