Europeans overwhelmingly favor U.S. President Barack Obama to his Republican opponent in the upcoming presidential election. Still, the past four years have been difficult for transatlantic relations. In an era of austerity and with power shifting toward not only Asia but also Latin America and elsewhere, it has become increasingly obvious to many Europeans that they can no longer expect the same level of engagement from the United States.

Rather than agonize over the potential implications of this development, Europeans should grasp the opportunity to revitalize their own foreign policy and security capabilities. There can be no further delay in developing serious initiatives to pool resources and build credible collective European capacity.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
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None of this is to say that Europeans like America noticeably less after four years of Obama. According to recent polling by the German Marshall Fund, 75 percent of EU residents would vote for Obama and only 8 percent for Mitt Romney. These results partly reflect the fact that the president is much better known in Europe than Romney. But they also demonstrate Europeans’ fundamentally positive attitude toward the current U.S. administration.

Europeans feel a greater affinity for this administration’s domestic policies—a fact that Governor Romney confirmed by accusing the president of wanting to apply a European social model in the United States. Two-thirds of Europeans—a far greater proportion than U.S. citizens—also approve of Obama’s handling of international issues. They support his efforts to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to seek a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, and to take a positive attitude on democratic change in the Arab world. They also welcome his return to constructive engagement in multilateral diplomacy.

Despite these warm feelings, the past four years will not go down in history as a particularly fruitful period in transatlantic relations. President Obama did not build strong personal relationships with European leaders. Interaction between the United States and the European Union on the most urgent item on the agenda—the financial and debt crises—was frequently marked by acrimony and mutual frustration. In developing its new strategic concept, NATO struggled with the divergent interests and visions of member states and failed to define a cohesive mission for the alliance in the twenty-first century.

In all likelihood, this period will be seen as the beginning of a reorientation of the United States’ strategic focus. As the world becomes more multipolar, the transatlantic alliance is losing its central place in strategic thinking in Washington. Reality is not in line with U.S. officials’ reassurances that the “pivot” to Asia is only intended as a signal of engagement with the Asia-Pacific region and does not imply a reduced American commitment to Europe.

As a superpower, the United States cannot avoid remaining comprehensively involved around the world. And today, U.S. foreign and security policy has to take into account the rise of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). The situation in the Middle East is becoming ever more difficult, and the United States is simultaneously facing growing challenges in East Asia. Aside from the euro crisis, no significant U.S. interests are currently under threat on the European continent.

In combination with growing budgetary constraints in the United States, all this must, by necessity, lead to a gradual redeployment of American resources away from Europe and a growing reluctance to take the lead in crises affecting Europe and its neighborhood. Europe will no longer be able to rely on the same level of U.S. protection, and it will have to shoulder greater responsibility for regional stability.

But rather than worry about the implications of diminishing U.S. engagement, the EU should focus on preparing for this challenge and should welcome the opportunity to develop a more equitable partnership with the United States. Paradoxically, the fact that Europe is no longer a main focus of U.S. security policy enhances rather than diminishes the potential for transatlantic cooperation.

Not so long ago, Washington viewed efforts to develop the security dimension of the EU with misgivings. They were seen as a threat to NATO’s primacy in that area. Now, at a time when the United States feels seriously overstretched, any effort—regardless of its institutional setting—that increases Europe’s capabilities is warmly welcomed in Washington. There can be no doubt that in view of shared values and interests, Europe remains America’s partner of first resort in tackling a whole range of international issues. Whether Europe has the ambition and the ability to play this role effectively remains to be seen.

This situation should give a fresh impetus to efforts to develop European civilian and military crisis management capabilities, which have stagnated in recent years. European governments spend vast amounts on their militaries—a third of global non-U.S. military spending—while only a small fraction of these armed forces can actually be deployed in crisis situations. This state of affairs was always problematic but excusable so long as U.S. engagement could be counted on. However, the prospect of soon having to face security challenges in their neighborhood alone should finally concentrate the minds of European leaders.

Though the implementation of the reforms outlined in the Treaty of Lisbon was expected to improve EU foreign policy, it has not yet brought about a breakthrough in the EU’s performance. But the EU is gradually becoming a more capable actor and cooperation with Washington is on the rise. U.S. officials recognize that the establishment of the European External Action Service (EEAS), with the new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy at its head, has brought about more continuity and a welcome simplification. Whereas in the old system, visitors from Washington had to discuss the same issues with multiple officials, they now have clearly identifiable counterparts in the EEAS. This has facilitated communication and cooperation between senior officials on both sides.

While Washington, of course, continues to engage the capitals of EU member states directly, having a central interlocutor speaking for and reporting to the 27 member states has obvious advantages. Henry Kissinger’s famous request for a “European phone number” has lost none of its relevance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton works closely with High Representative Catherine Ashton on a whole range of foreign policy issues. Indeed, her strong relationship with Washington is one of Catherine Ashton’s greatest assets. And what holds true at the level of their leadership also applies to many officials from the State Department and the EEAS.

Nonetheless, two and a half years after the creation of the service, important deficits remain. Most notably, the EEAS has not yet fulfilled its potential of serving as an effective coordinator of both classical foreign and security policy and the external competences of the European Commission. The structures of the EEAS also require a fresh look and more needs to be done to enhance member states’ sense of ownership of the service and to improve coordination and complementarity between the EEAS and national diplomacies. The upcoming review of the organization and functioning of the service, which is due to be finalized by mid-2013, will offer an important opportunity to address many of these shortcomings.

Of course, the EU’s real strength as an international actor stems neither from its military nor diplomatic capabilities. As the world’s biggest economy and trading power, most important provider of development and humanitarian assistance, and greatest source of international norms and standards, it possesses vast assets that make it the United States’ main counterpart in many respects. Despite the rise of the BRICs, the EU-U.S. economic relationship remains by far the world’s most important in terms of both trade and investment.

The EU’s greatest weakness is that it is frequently unable to bring these assets together in a coherent strategy cutting across internal and external policies. EU efforts are far too often disjointed and diffuse. Complexity and incoherence often result in inaction. Thus, the EU’s great potential for leadership is rarely translated into genuine influence. If the EU wishes to take greater responsibility for the stability of its neighborhood and play a more effective role in confronting international challenges it will have to develop a much stronger collective sense of purpose and begin to act more coherently.

On November 6, Europeans will not have a say in who becomes the next president of the United States. But no matter what the results of the election, Europeans will still be faced with an America that wants and needs them to take a more active role in the world and in ensuring their own security and the stability of their region. They should recognize this as an opportunity and make the most of it.