AMSTERDAM, March 28, 2014 — When President Obama visited Pope Francis yesterday, the online site of the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” chose the headline: “Ex-Hoffnungsträger trifft Nachfolger” (Ex-beacon of hope meets successor). This summarizes how Obama is viewed now in Europe.
During Obama’s first visit to Europe, when he first ran for the White House, he was welcomed like a pop star. People were euphoric and put a great deal of hope in him. Europeans yearned for change in American politics. They were fed up by the division the war on terror had caused.
Obama stood for the change they hoped for. He was a fresh start, a hope for new policies, the symbol of an America that would be less divided and less internally focused. He would bridge the gap in American politics and the gap between the U.S. and its allies. America would again be a role model and beacon of liberty.
The welcome was indifferent this time. Not much has changed since Obama took office. Too many promises have not been realized yet or have been broken. People understand that their expectations might have been too high, but the accomplishments so far are meager. The only big change is Obamacare, a project that is controversial in the U.S. but widely seen as a sensible move in Europe.
Other hopes and promises are still distant. The three most often expressed hopes when Obama took office were that he would reduce divisions in America, change the course of American foreign policy (e.g., reduce troops and find better alignment with allies), and that he would focus on civil rights.
The perception is that American politics is now even more divided than it was in 2008. Europeans do not blame Obama alone for this, but they do believe he failed to provide positive leadership. As president, he has too often played partisan politics or simply failed to lead instead of bridging the gap between Parties. While he has faced fierce opposition from the Republicans and the Tea Party, in Europe, it is very common for opposing parties to reach compromise. Most European countries are run by a coalition governments, comprised of various parties.
Europeans see the increased divisions in America as a weakness for Obama.
On foreign policy, Europeans laud Obama for reducing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this has not meant a change in course; he has replaced troops with drones. Not only has he continued with military actions, but he has promoted military solutions ahead of diplomatic ones. The use of drones is often decided outside the view of Congress, and therefore outside of democratic control.
The biggest let-down for Europeans is the third area – civil rights. They hoped that with Obama at the helm, the U.S. would be again be a leader in civil rights, but there is hardly any improvement in that area. Guantanamo is still open and prisoners there are kept outside the legal system. Revelations about the NSA raised eyebrows, and not just because of the extent of spying and the missing sensibility when it comes to allies. The biggest concerns are the lack of democratic control and Obama’s lack of urgency in tackling the issue.
Another prominent issue is how Obama deals with whistleblowers. To Europeans, whistleblowers are vital for a functioning democracy. How Obama reacted to the WikiLeaks revelation of State Department communications by Assange and Manning, and to the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden, has not contributed to the international standing of the U.S.
The United States has lost significant credibility in the eyes of Europe under Obama. This makes the U.S. a less credible defender of civil rights in other countries, dashing the hopes many Europeans had when Obama was elected.