Before the throngs of participants in this year’s Munich Security Conference gather on January 31 in the Bavarian capital, they should ponder what was said—and, more importantly, what wasn’t—in U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
Delivered on January 28, the annual speech reveals much about what preoccupies Americans. European governments must grasp this if they are to understand why they need to think and act strategically about their own security and interests. The era of the old transatlantic relationship is over. Nostalgia is passé, and delusion is no longer possible.
In his address, which was often interrupted by applause, Obama spoke at length about domestic issues from healthcare reform to the minimum wage, from education to support for the middle class, from creating jobs to restoring prosperity. These are the issues that matter to Americans—and, actually, to Europeans.
Also important to Obama’s public were his remarks about bringing home U.S. troops. It was time, he said, to end the “permanent war footing” that started after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. “I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it’s truly necessary; nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts.”
Atlanticists who are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Munich Security Conference from January 31 to February 2 might have hoped that Obama would speak, even briefly, about the transatlantic relationship. But why should he, given the huge problems he faces back home? And how can Europeans expect the United States, long the guarantor of Europe’s security, to confirm an anachronistic status quo?
True, Obama did make a passing reference to NATO: “A small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies.” Europe got short shrift: “Our alliance with Europe remains the strongest the world has ever known.”
Even more worrying for the security analysts gathering in Munich was the lack of any reference to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently under negotiation between the EU and the United States. That is despite the fact that American supporters of the talks wax lyrical about jobs and investment opportunities. There are also huge hopes that the partnership could put the entire transatlantic alliance on a new footing.
As for other aspects of foreign policy, Obama paid scant attention to Ukraine or Syria, two big geostrategic issues. But he did mention America’s role in the new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Neither China nor Russia got a mention. Nor did Egypt or the immense challenges that the United States and Europe face in the broader Middle East. These are big omissions. Domestic concerns or not, Americans need to know about major global issues and what they mean for America’s interests and values. Obama’s focus on the domestic agenda makes it more difficult for foreign policy makers to have any influence.
There was one exception: Iran. Obama was highly persuasive when it came to justifying his approach to negotiations with Iran. That was clearly targeted at the Iranian leadership, but also at Israel and at those influential Republicans in the U.S. Congress who fiercely oppose any deal with Tehran.
What all this means for Atlanticists and Europeans is that Obama’s State of the Union address is good and bad news.
Good news because it might finally jolt Europeans out of their fixed perceptions and complacency and their unwillingness to recognize the extraordinary shifts in priorities taking place in the United States.
For far too long, transatlantic associations and foundations, particularly in Germany, Britain, and most Eastern European countries, have shied away from tackling difficult issues between Europe and the United States.
Above all, they have ducked the urgent security question of how to cope with Washington’s shift toward the Asia-Pacific, which Obama confirmed during his address: “We will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies [and] shape a future of greater security and prosperity.”
The bad news is that Obama’s speech had so little substance on serious international issues. There was no depth, no consideration of the risks of further deterioration in the Middle East, and no mention of what is happening in Iraq.
Hopefully, both Americans and Europeans will tackle some of these issues head-on at the Munich Security Conference. A serious debate is needed about how both sides of the Atlantic see each other, and why Europe has to understand what is happening to the transatlantic relationship. There is no going back: the Atlanticist comfort zone is over.