TWQ: Europe's Call for a Leader by Example - Fall 2008
October 1, 2008
The change in U.S. administration in January 2009 is one of the most anticipated in recent times outside of the United States, especially in Europe. The reason is self-evident; the last eight years have witnessed a deep shift in international perceptions of the purpose and value of U.S. power on the world stage. As opinion polls have consistently demonstrated, this shift has not been a positive one. The exercise of U.S. power during this period has been seen neither as a benign nor as a stabilizing force. Solid majorities across Europe finding U.S. leadership in international affairs to be a positive factor have become persistent minorities, with significant declines even among traditional supporters of the United States such as Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
To be sure, much of this decline in support is linked to specific policies undertaken by the Bush administration during its first term, primarily the invasion of Iraq but also the administration's disdain for international legal norms (calling into question the Geneva Conventions while using the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and extraordinary renditions to combat international terrorism) and for the value of new international institutions, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court. Many other countries, particularly in Europe, see these norms and institutions as forming the framework for stable international relations.
Nevertheless, this unhappiness with the recent U.S. international role runs parallel to continuing widespread support for the values and ideals of individual opportunity and democracy that the United States personifies. It is largely for this reason that so much international attention is being paid to the current presidential election. Politicians and publics in much of the world are hoping for a closer connection between the United States' internal values and its international actions in the coming years than has been the case in the last eight. This is not an exercise in emotional displacement. Given its continuing economic and military might and its international commitments and aspirations, how the United States manages the balance between its internal values and international policies will have a direct bearing on the security and prosperity of many people beyond its shores.
From a European perspective and, within that perspective, from a British angle in those few areas in which the majority European and the British views are not broadly synonymous, the next U.S. administration would ideally do many things differently. Most fundamentally, it would lead by example, not by force, to address some of the world's most intractable problems and conflicts, and it would not follow a narrow definition of its own national security.