by Ken Feltman
The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.
– Reinhold Niebuhr
Last week in Oslo, Barack Obama accepted the limits of the office of president of the United States. He put aside the international ego games he has played since his election. He showed himself to be a thoroughly American leader and earned the respect of his fellow countrymen even as he disappointed his hosts.
For Americans, this was a unifying speech, one likely to be cited years from now. If the Norwegians intended to use the Nobel Prize to divide Americans, they failed. Obama lifted Americans above partisan differences. Whatever mistakes we have made, he said quietly, the people of the United States have shed their blood to advance democracy and to promote peace and prosperity around the world.
Context is important in evaluating Obama and especially his speeches. More than any recent president, he uses speeches to set and explain policy. His remarks in Oslo are an outline of what is already being called the “Obama Doctrine.” His flirtation with international cult status is over. The context of Oslo is Obama’s understanding of the 20th century European experience from the prevailing left-of-center viewpoint, which Obama shares.
The Peace Prize is awarded by politicians from a friendly but aloof, prosperous but detached country. They seem to stand apart, neutrals amidst the disarray of life, and pontificate because a munitions manufacturer selected their capital as the presentation site. They seem to see no irony in this. They take their task seriously. The Peace Prize brightens up the Oslo social scene in an otherwise dreary and dark time of year. They award their prize in the context of the lessons they and other center-left politicians have drawn from Europe’s destructive wars of the first half of the last century, and from the tensions of the ensuing Cold War.
Whimsy as well as wisdom
Recently, awards have gone to political dissidents – such as the Dalai Lama – and leaders of favored causes (Al Gore) and those who brokered peace deals or truces (Henry Kissinger). Sometimes, as this year, the award has been given to one person in a symbolic rejection of another. Many prizes, like this year’s, say more about the prevailing prejudices and fears of the award committee than about the actual recipients.
More important than Obama’s words of acceptance – more important than the fact that Obama was chosen – is this latest reminder of the fundamental differences between the European and American perspectives of the events and lessons of the 20th century. Obama has been left-leaning Europe’s current vehicle for carrying forward a center-left vision of the last century and projecting that vision of history into the future. Sometimes that works. This time, the award merely echoes the failure of Europeans and Americans to understand each other.
Europe is divided, as always. The Eastern Europeans and most Russians do not agree with their better-off Western European neighbors. They are skeptical and wary of Obama. They experienced a very different 20th century. They are survivors of the bloodshed of the two world wars. But they also survived Soviet domination and the economic disaster of Soviet communism. They came through the breakup of the Soviet empire from a different point of reference.
Everything changed for Europe with the two great wars. Old boundaries and governments vanished. New systems came and went and came again and were in turn replaced by newer arrangements. The stress of unrelenting and often violent change tempered people throughout the continent. Many Europeans desired stability above all else. They wanted to restore a sense of order and prevent another cataclysmic war.
The Cold War presented the United States with new military responsibilities, many formerly shouldered by Great Britain, but also with a new responsibility to help Europe rebuild. The rebuilding made Europe stronger and the economic recovery instilled confidence in the war-weary, war-wary people. The rebuilding, however, came with a price: In essence, Europe was occupied. The Americans were on one side of the line with the Russians on the other, both provocative and ready for battle. The Western Europeans prospered. The Eastern Europeans lived in a time warp. Both bridled at their inability to control their own destiny.
Europe had little choice
From the end of World War II until 1991, Western Europe lived with the threat of Soviet or American misadventures. Europeans had faced catastrophic invasions twice in the century and they felt that they were pawns in the U.S.-Soviet confrontation. They had little choice but to depend on the U.S. for economic assistance and defense. They tried to find a way out of this latest if more benign subjugation. All knew that Europe would be a battlefield in any hostilities between the two super-powers.
Each aggressive move by the Soviets or the Americans was met with a counter-move. After a while, Moscow and Washington barely noticed but the jockeying reverberated throughout Europe. Some Europeans were inclined to yield bits and pieces to the Soviets to buy peace. The Americans remembered Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich in 1938. Despite their uneasy situation, the Western Europeans began to create an economy worth saving. They saw the Cold War as the clash of economic ideologies more than territorial ambitions. American overreaction to Soviet provocation represented the possible destruction of everything that Europe had built on the ashes of war.
In a few short years, Americans went from liberators and allies to protectors who were aggressive, reckless and dumb enough to cause another war. Many thought that the Americans were both too powerful and too immature to be trusted.
From an American point of view, the Europeans had engaged in incomprehensible brutality between 1914 and 1945. Their conflicts had threatened the peace of the world and they had called twice for American assistance. Europe had squandered its past and American blood had been the price of peace. The victory in 1945 had given Europe the opportunity to rebuild and start anew. To the U.S., that opportunity soon became confirmation of capitalism’s superiority: The continent was more peaceful and prosperous after 1945, during the period of U.S. domination. In addition, the U.S. was spending large sums on assisting Europe and wanted to protect that investment. Simply put, the Americans did not trust Europe’s leaders to avoid the political mistakes that had brought on the two terrible wars.
The Wall falls
Suddenly, the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended. For the first time since 1914, Europeans were prosperous and had a greater degree of self determination. Europeans felt more secure. They relished their recovered sovereignty. Although the Americans asked little of the Europeans at that point, anything was too much. The Europeans were liberated from the Russian threat and the U.S. overlordship. The Americans were no longer needed.
Europe settled down into a prosperous future and began to compete aggressively with the behemoth of U.S. financial and business influence. They had shaken off U.S. domination. Out of the worst of times had come the best of times.
The Americans were offended at what they saw as ungratefulness. They should not have been. Their own country was born of similar ingratitude: In the mid 18th century, Britain’s North American colonies asked London to defend them from the French and their allies. With the French defeated, the colonies had resisted helping to repay the costs of the defense. Ultimately, and for the accumulation of many minor and a few major reasons, the colonies declared independence.
Just as everything changed for Europe with the fall of the Wall, for the United States 9-11 changed everything. Some Europeans believed that President Bush overreacted. They believed that Europe, not North America, would be the main battleground in any confrontation with terrorists. They were offended that they were not consulted. In fact, it was worse: Bush sought but ignored European advice. He and most Americans still remembered Chamberlain. The Europeans could not understand how Bush could continue, despite their objections, on a reckless, ill-considered course. This was American imperialism at its worst – this was the Cold War all over again, with Europe expected to follow along into possible catastrophe.
For many thoughtful Europeans, jihadists using airplanes to destroy buildings seemed a random threat that did not merit a military response. Reason would work where force would fail. But the unsophisticated Bush, a Texas cowboy at that, was plunging ahead at Europe’s possible expense.
The U.S. was the bigger threat
The old Cold War view of the United States re-emerged: American could drag Europe into another disaster. Bushs heavy-handed approach terrified some, concerned almost all: Their hard-earned prosperity was in jeopardy.
Prosperity is a desirable goal, to be protected. Europeans complain about the American obsession with money but U.S. policymakers observed that Europeans seem to put political stability before threat containment. This explains the popularity of strategies that seem to Americans to encourage appeasement.
The European concept of prosperity, however, is very different from the American concept and is one fundamental reason for the cultural clash between the continents: Europeans do not regard the pursuit of prosperity as a pursuit of wealth; They regard it as the pursuit of comfort and security. The possibility of random terrorism should not provoke a response that might jeopardize the stable and secure prosperity that so many Europeans had attained. Bush’s reaction was more threatening than the jihadists.
The president as fantasy
In this context, it is easier to understand Europe’s infatuation with Obama: He promised to consult them. Many understood that to mean that Europe might veto American actions that could harm Europe. They believed Obama would not risk European security and prosperity for American goals. Now, they are not so sure. The interlude that began with the disintegration of the Soviet Union ended too soon for Europe, just as the U.S.’s ability to prevent attacks on the American homeland ended when airplanes smashed into the twin towers.
Europe has pursued the goal of stable prosperity for centuries. The American experience is too new to have such deep roots. But European leaders have that uncomfortable feeling again that they cannot control her own destiny. Foreign powers are again mobilizing menacing arsenals of intimidation and force. Russian leaders sound and act like yesterday’s Soviet leaders. The Americans are unreliable. The tensions increase.
Stepping back, we see that neither continent understands the other. The European impression of the United States seems to discount two impressions that guide American attitudes toward Europe. First, Americans do not believe that Europeans, unless coerced, will commit to defend what the U.S. believes are common interests. Secondly, Americans remain concerned that Europe will appease its way into yet another conflagration that will cost U.S. blood to sort out.
The president as realist
Underlying all of the mutual ambivalence is another fact that Americans have just begun to realize: Britain excepted, the U.S. owes Europe no more than the U.S. owes any other place, and perhaps less. The American hope of a trans-Atlantic partnership is unlikely. Europe intends to go its own way. The U.S. must make its own way.
Europe and the United States have suffered a rocky marriage since the end of World War II. Clearly, Europeans see the U.S. as a loose cannon. But the estrangement has released the United States from obligations that the U.S. took perhaps too seriously. The European disenchantment with Obama’s decision on troops in Afghanistan, and with parts of his speech in Oslo, reflect the fact that Obama now has come to terms with his and his country’s place in the world. He leads a warrior nation. He confronts evil and must not flinch.
Sometimes, he will not be able to please other nations. He will not be able to please himself. The most significant message from Oslo is that this young American president understands the burdens of his office and his duty.
The Norwegians gave their prize to a president who does not exist. They gave their prize to a candidate of grand visions and promises, of dreams shared with them. That candidate is gone. Now elected, he has been taken away by the realities of an imperfect world. Obama is trapped by this reality and he cannot go back to the Norwegian fantasy.