It seemed exaggerated at the time. But when Europeans fretted that Barack Obama’s election would mean a waning US interest in Europe they were not far wrong. Mr Obama was America’s first Pacific president, which also made him its first non-Atlantic one. His pivot to Asia need not have been a pivot away from Europe — but that is how it has turned out. If there were any doubt Mr Obama’s priorities lay beyond Europe (and the Middle East), they have been put to rest in the past year. Can whomever succeeds him revive the Atlantic alliance? For that matter, how much of one will he bequeath?
The answer is a rapidly moving target. Eight months ago Europe finally seemed to have answered Henry Kissinger’s quandary about whom to telephone. That was Angela Merkel. The US intelligence services admittedly took that too literally by eavesdropping on Ms Merkel’s calls. But it was clear who was in charge. Others were prepared to follow her. All that is now moot. Following Ms Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s doors to Syrian refugees, even domestic allies have distanced themselves from her — not to mention neighbours, such as Austria, Poland and France, which explicitly repudiated her move. As a result, the already strained European project hangs in the balance.
Does America care? If you canvass its foreign policy establishment — the administrations-in-waiting that populate the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and elsewhere — the answer is a strong yes. US bipartisan elites have always backed the transatlantic alliance, which they still see as the cornerstone of the US-led global order.
But think-tanks are so 20th century. Politicians no longer hold the same degree of respect for them. Obama officials refer to Washington’s Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of them, as “Arab-occupied territory”, because of the level of Gulf money they solicit. Some of those hoping to succeed Mr Obama, including Donald Trump, who would be happy for the US to walk away from Nato, have barely set foot in one.
Among the other candidates, only Hillary Clinton and John Kasich, the Ohio governor, fit the traditional mould. Their campaigns are advised by many of the familiar names in waiting. Even they, however, would agree with Mr Obama’s frustration over Europe’s “free riders”. For all her Atlanticism, it is not clear whether a Hillary Clinton administration would mark a big change from Mr Obama.
There are two big obstacles to reviving the west as we knew it.
The first is the crisis in Syria. It is hard to find anyone on either side of the Atlantic who believes last month’s deal between Turkey and the EU will survive 2016. Turkey’s agreement to stem the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe is based on the pretence its citizens will be given visa-free travel to Europe, and that EU accession talks will be revived. Once both fictions are unmasked, Turkey will be tempted to turn the refugee spigot back on. If there were any doubts in the US that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, is an autocrat, they were dispelled at the Brookings Institution last week when his bodyguards manhandled journalists critical of his regime. There is no chance Turkey will be invited to join the EU. Nor should there be.
Which puts the spotlight back on the US. No matter how hard John Kerry, the US secretary of state, tries to broker a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war, it is outweighed by Mr Obama’s lack of interest. Without strong White House support, Mr Kerry’s mission is quixotic.
Mr Obama’s reluctance to put US troops in Syria is understandable. But he could have tried other things. For example, taking more Syrian refugees would have given him greater moral traction to sway collective action in Europe. The US has only processed 1,300 of the 10,000 Syrians that he pledged to take last year. He is unlikely to meet that target before leaving office.
Last week, the Obama administration gave $10m to the UN Syrian refugee effort, which is less than the cost of a US missile strike. It is possible Mrs Clinton would be more activist than Mr Obama. But she would also be limited by public opinion. For the time being Europe cannot look to Washington to fix Syria. Nor is it capable of doing so on its own.
The second obstacle is surging populism on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether it is Britain’s EU Leave campaign, Marine Le Pen’s strong poll lead over French president François Hollande, or the rise of Mr Trump in the US, the momentum is away from “the west” as we have understood it. It is no secret that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, would like Britain to leave the EU, supports Ms Le Pen and returns Mr Trump’s admiration.
It is an open question how long Europe will be able to maintain its post-Crimea sanctions on Russia. It is worth recalling that it was Ms Merkel — not Mr Obama — who was instrumental in putting them in place.
Nowadays, moreover, it is Russia, not the US, that is the prime mover on Syria. US generals have testified that Russia’s bombing of Aleppo and elsewhere is deliberately “weaponising refugees” to weaken Europe. So far Russia’s repugnant strategy seems to be working. But it is a strategy. The problem facing the west — if that term holds — is that it still lacks anything resembling one.
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