Europeans were among the loudest cheerleaders for Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. Soon after he won the Democratic candidacy, 200,000 people turned out in Berlin to hear him speak. But now that he is settled in the White House, many Europeans feel snubbed.
Just six weeks into Obama's presidency, Europeans are already fretting over the fact that he has yet to visit Europe. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has flown west for her first foreign trip, spending a week in Asia last month before traveling to the Middle East. Meanwhile, Obama has returned the Winston Churchill bust that sat in the Oval Office for the past eight years to the British. Indeed, some Europeans brood that the new President's only nod toward them came with the family decision to adopt a Portuguese water dog. (See pictures of presidential dogs.)
To many, these might be trivial matters with few implications for the long-term transatlantic relationship. But in Europe they are parsed with dutiful solemnity. Hence the significance of Clinton's visit to Brussels today to meet European Union and NATO ministers and officials. "Europeans never miss an opportunity to read bad omens in a new President," says Daniel Korski, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "But if there is one word for Obama's foreign policy, it is engagement. He will want European help in dealing with the financial crisis. He will become more involved in NATO. And to make these initiatives work, he will want a coordinated and integrated Europe."
Clinton's trip is mainly a meet and greet, a chance to get to know some of the major players in the 27-member E.U. and the 26-strong NATO. But she will undoubtedly use the occasion to soothe sensitivities and reassure her hosts that the U.S. still considers Europe a vital ally in all manner of foreign policy challenges. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Clinton's arrival on Thursday was widely welcomed. "We can assume there will be a new breeze going through NATO and a new mood of cooperation," he said. "We will need that because the challenges are not getting any easier." (See pictures of people around the world watching Obama's Inauguration.)
Clinton is setting the stage for Obama's first visit to Europe as President next month, which includes a meeting with all 27 E.U. leaders in Prague as well as a London summit of the G-20, which gathers the world's major economies, and NATO's 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg and Baden-Baden. "There is an overarching theme to the trip to Brussels, which is the reconnection of the United States with Europe and really a sense of consolidating this enormous political goodwill on both sides of the Atlantic," interim Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried said in a statement. After years of strained relations between the Bush Administration and much of Europe, Obama should be able to tie this goodwill to some of the policies that are now aligning the E.U. on the side of the U.S., from climate change to Iran and the financial crisis. (See pictures of the global financial crisis.)
That is not to say there are no points of contention. Vice President Joe Biden told a security conference in Munich last month that although Washington was ready to listen, it expected more from Europe in return. When it comes to Afghanistan, European nations are still dragging their feet on troops. And on trade, Obama narrowly avoided an early confrontation with the E.U. when he changed the language of the "buy American" clause in the financial stimulus bill just days before the congressional vote.
Europeans still piqued over any apparent slight by Obama should take a more sanguine view of the transatlantic relationship, according to Michael Emerson, associate senior research fellow at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies. "Europe is not a threat to the United States, so it does not impose itself on the agenda," he says. "By contrast, China is at the top of the agenda because it is funding so much in America, and the priority at the moment is the economic crisis. The transatlantic relationships is all about substantive questions, so Europe is just not an issue."