You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Obama Thought America Could Do Without Europe. Well, Europe May Think It Can Do Without America.

This is my rather crude way of putting John Vinocur's subtle answer to the question he posed yesterday in his "Politicus" column in the International Herald Tribune: "Could U.S. lose Europe to Russia?"

Of course, Obama cares mightily about the Third World. The Third World is a mess, an unholy mess, and it's about time that someone make this argument clearly rather than let it linger as an unspoken and mischievous truth.

Not quite a half-century ago I was preparing for my graduate school general examinations and "African nationalism" was one of my special fields. Rupert Emerson was my adviser, a wise person trying to be sympathetic to his subject.

But Pat Moynihan, the most literate and sagacious of America politicians (he, of course, was also a consummate, if very self-conscious intellectual, a man from Hell's Kitchen, what they now call Clinton, no nothing to do with that Clinton), warned me against the London School of Economics model that the leaders of Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria had taken as their guidelines for policy. First of all, Pat said, these guys, like their teachers, are socialists. Socialism, he opined, doesn't work, and it certainly doesn't work in societies that are tribal and "primarily primordial." I took this primordial stuff as a compliment. Conor Cruise O'Brien, another Irishman and perhaps the greatest Irish thinker of the age, had worked in and on post-colonial Africa, both in the U.N. secretariat and at the University of Ghana. He also opened my eyes. I lured him to The New Republic. His last writings were on Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Says something...doesn't it?

I'm rambling a bit, I know. I doubt that Obama has delusions about Africa. How could he? But he has liberated himself from responsibility for America saving African lives. I doubt that you need much elaboration of this point. In any case, I've made it many times in this space. So with what am I saddling him?

That he has let the continent simply have the United Nations. It is Africa's play thing, regardless of the cumbersome formulas for shifting geographical representation throughout the system. It doesn't have much power. But it makes declarations that constrict or embellish. Since that now is essentially the business of international diplomacy it is actually a lot. George Bush--yes, that man who understood nothing--understood these dynamics, and he simply took America out of the Human Rights Commission, now called Human Rights Council, as if change of label ever means change of substance. No, the State Department would not negotiate with Libya over Khartoum's depredations against Sudan's Christians. (Surprise: the current Sudanese genocide is the second such. This present one is against non-Arab Muslims, black Muslims.) Susan Rice, our ambassador to the U.N., apparently believes that an American presence at the Human Rights Council will moderate its actions. Rice apparently also persuaded the president of this worthy truth. I don't believe it. Neither of them is stupid. You figure this out. I believe it was cynical.

It is true that African economic growth is, well, growing. The continent is rich in oil, very rich in oil, and in other minerals, strategic minerals, most significantly. China has no compunctions about doing business with anyone anywhere. Just like the British or the French or, for that matter, we idealistic Americans didn't have any compunctions except symbolic ones, from which Beijing is structurally free. Africa's economic development will not save a single life in the Congo. Or Zimbabwe. Or South Africa...but that's another story altogether.

Real diplomacy does not take place in Africa. That's why the preposterous yellow-cake comedy featuring President Bush, Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame could be played out for so long. Africa is about minerals, the people be damned.

Which brings me to the story with which I began. Europe and America.

It is indisputable that Obama began his term with a series of insults to our European friends. They may not be as powerful or rich as they used to be. But we also are not as powerful or rich as we used to be. I remember thinking in 1956 when I was still a (I suppose, precocious) teenager that we would pay dearly for having screwed France and Great Britain at Suez. Here you had that hide-bound reactionary secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who ran our national security portfolio with his brother Allan at the C.I.A., betting on Gamal Abdel Nasser's national delirium. Bye and bye, De Gaulle had his revenge on us. The U.K. resisted vengeance. But its hurt festered. The alliance was painfully reconstructed by Ronald Reagan and by Bill Cinton. ("Clinton liked Oxford a lot", a young Oxonian once explained to me.) Maggie Thatcher had a hold on the American imagination, too. For the good.

As a German official said to Vinocur, "the United States must accept that the times are changing." There certainly have been both French and German initiatives:

A major one is President Barack Obama’s perceived lack of interest and engagement in Europe. His failure to attend a Berlin ceremony commemorating the end of the Cold War and his cancellation of a meeting involving the E.U.’s new president has had symbolic weight.
At the same time, the U.S. reset with Russia and the administration’s willingness to treat President Dmitri A. Medvedev as a potential Western-oriented partner has given the Germans and French the sense they were free to act on the basis of their own interpretations of the changes in Moscow.
In this European view, the United States has become significantly dependent on Russia through its maintenance of military supply routes to Afghanistan and its heightened pressure, albeit in wavering measure, on Iran. Because the reset is portrayed by the administration to be a U.S. foreign policy success, criticism from Washington of Russia is at a minimum.
Consider this irony: the more Russia makes entry into the E.U.’s decision-making processes on security issues a seeming condition for deals the French and/or Germans want (think, for example, of France’s proposed sale to Moscow of Mistral attack vessels), the more the impression takes hold that the administration’s focus for complaint about the situation has been off-loaded onto the Europeans.

Obama's trust in Medvedev (or, for that matter, his trust in Putin) is in a strange way comparable to his trust in the king of Saudi Arabia. Maybe he feels he can rely on autocrats, which is a kind way to characterize them. But never mind.

"Russia is getting a whole series of passes," Vinocur points out:

Ten days ago, when Mr. Medvedev offered Hugo Chávez of Venezuela help to build the country’s first nuclear power station, the State Department expressed concern about technology migrating to “countries that should not have that technology” — but added (bafflingly), that the relationship between Venezuela and Russia (for years Iran’s supplier of nuclear wherewithal) “is not of concern to us.”
Last week, more of the same. When Mr. Medvedev bestowed Russia’s highest honors at a Kremlin ceremony on a group of sleeper spies who were expelled from the United States last July, a State Department spokesman turned away a reporter’s question with a “no comment.” Washington chooses not to say anything either about Mr. Medvedev’s support, repeated in Deauville, for Mr. Sarkozy’s plan, as next year’s president of the G-20 consultative grouping, to focus its attention on limiting the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency.

Notice that Vinocur has no complaints against the Brits. And maybe there are none to be had. David Cameron's England does not have many choices, and it is really too early to tell which of them the Tories will take. Max Boot published in the Wall Street Journal of October 21 a pungent little essay, "Britain Bows Out of the Security Game," which takes Cameron's budget to be a mirror of his intentions. Now, the prime minister has said that his country will always "punch above our weight." That may be his intentions. But, as Boot says, "his words ring hollow." Please do read this article. The details are devastating.

I don't exactly know how a weakened great power like the U.S. should act with reference to an ally of two centuries which is also caught in an economic crisis.

But one way we shouldn't is to create new problems for it.Which is exactly what the secretary of state did when she hectored London about the Falklands. First by calling them "Malvinas" which is a propaganda term of the Argentine dictatorship. And it is a real dictatorship. Then by saying she would be happy to serve as a mediator in the dispute. This is her hauteur. There is no crisis. No one on the islands pines for the neo-fascists on the mainland to arrive. Mrs.Clinton: aren't you busy enough curtailing rape in the Congo?