The Trouble with Hope

Could the Restoration of America’s International Reputation Turn out to be Bad for Europe?

America’s presidential election campaign is being followed in Europe with passionate interest. It is seen as a long saga full of surprises. The human and intellectual qualities of the three remaining candidates are even viewed with some envy on this side of the Atlantic, where you can hear statements such as: “Could we borrow just one of your candidates?” Many Europeans feel all three candidates are superb, and that, contrast to previous elections, America is suffering from an embarrassment of riches.

But Europeans’ interest in this presidential election cannot mask the fact that what they expect from it is far from clear. Europeans may want a more “normal” America, closer to their own values, but they simultaneously worry that a more modest America would demand more of them in the realm of “hard” military power.

America as a model or America as a protector – this “European dilemma” is in itself new. For, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, most Europeans viewed the United States as both its defender against the Soviet Union’s expansionist aims and the key external actor for their deeply wounded continent’s moral and economic reconstruction.

This is no longer the case. The collapse of the USSR, America’s self-inflicted wounds – particularly in Iraq – and the spectacular rise of Asia have changed European perceptions of the US. America is no longer the protector or model that it used to be, nor is it alone in terms of influence and power.

One can even say that the European Union has slowly become a “normative” force in the world in reaction to the evolution of America’s power. Europe has long known that it could never balance America in the realm of “hard power;” but, with the decline of America’s “soft power,” it became more important than ever to incarnate the “humane” and law-abiding face of the West.

In this sense, Europe has come to see itself, at least in part, as an alternative dream for everyone who had stopped dreaming about America. But, seen from within, the EU model often appears less convincing.

Thus, many Europeans continue to be nostalgic for America as a model. For these Europeans, Barack Obama, campaigning under the banner of “hope,” is the ideal choice to restore, as if by magic, America’s soft power. After all, he himself incarnates the American Dream.

But some Europeans prefer Hillary Clinton or even John McCain, because they are apprehensive about the consequences for America’s European partners of a more restrained and less experienced president. They worry about not only competence, but also the old transatlantic issue of “burden sharing.” The implicit question behind some European reservations about Obama may be formulated in one question: “Will we have to do more in Afghanistan and beyond?”

Could the restoration of America’s international reputation turn out to be bad for Europe, by eroding its new monopoly on representing Western values and calling it back to its hard power duties? Could it be that a candidate of fear – McCain or, increasingly, Clinton – really serves Europe’s interests better than a candidate of hope?

With Obama in power, it would become – at least initially – more difficult for Europeans to denounce America, even if the “New France” of Nicolas Sarkozy has already moved away from this easy temptation. But it would also be less easy to reject a call for greater burden sharing in the world.

This “defensive” view of transatlantic relations is problematic. The best America for Europe and the world is a confident America – an America that sheds its culture of fear and rediscovers the roots of its culture of hope. This is Obama’s America. Of course, the greater your expectations are, the greater the risk of disappointment. But, after eight years of America’s self-imposed isolation under Bush, it is a risk worth taking.

Even if America is no longer the world’s only superpower, it still remains the “indispensable nation.” So Europeans are right to be fascinated by America’s presidential election. Regardless of who wins, the consequences of the outcome will reverberate throughout the world.


Dominique Moisi, a founder and Senior Advisor at Ifri (French Institute for International Relations), is currently a Professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

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