As the dust clears from Barack Obama’s whirlwind visit to Europe, it is clear the US president made a very positive impression. He was much more than simply not George W. Bush. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing what people had to say.
Of course at this stage of a new US administration, a lot of policies have not been set in stone. Half the players have yet to be confirmed in their jobs. Mr Obama has made big strategic choices – engaging with Iran, and “resetting” the relationship with Russia – but most of the details have yet to be fleshed out. It is an excellent moment for America’s partners to come up with good ideas on what they want from Washington.
So what might Mr Obama have made of the European response to his visit? Afghanistan was the most urgent item on his agenda.
He unveiled a policy review the week before he landed in London. It was just about everything that Europe had been asking for.
Mr Obama abandoned any excessively ideological view of transforming Afghanistan into a liberal democracy overnight. He agreed that Pakistan was part of the problem. He put more emphasis on economic development, plus training and building Afghan institutions. He will use more sophisticated counter-insurgency techniques, and seek to co-opt insurgents from the Taliban. He will do everything to avoid civilian casualties. And he will seek to build a consensus with neighbouring states, including Iran, on the process.
More than that: at the Nato summit in Strasbourg Mr Obama deliberately avoided asking the European allies to send more soldiers to the front, although he is sending 21,000 of his own, including 4,000 to train the Afghan national army. But he still insisted: “This effort cannot be America’s alone.” His message was clear: if Europe cannot put more military boots on the ground, it can do more training and provide more civilian “soft security”.
The European response was underwhelming: an extra 5,000 troops, 2,000 as trainers, the rest to leave again after the election in August. There will also be some civilians – 400 gendarmes have been promised, and election observers. There may be some contributions to an election trust fund, but no enthusiasm for a $500m fund (€376m, £339) to train the Afghan army.
The European Union promised in May 2008 to send 400 police trainers. They have only managed to find 200 volunteers, not least because the pay is so poor.
What is wrong with the Europeans? They know that the war in Afghanistan is the ultimate test for the relevance and effectiveness of the Nato alliance. They also know that it is currently being lost.
But European govern- ments are terrified of offending hostile public opinion that cannot understand – and has never had it explained – why their soldiers should be dying in such a distant land.
A Harris opinion poll conducted for the Financial Times in January showed 60 per cent of Germans, 57 per cent of British, and 53 per cent of both French and Italians opposed to sending any more soldiers if Mr Obama asked for them. That is why he did not.
Part of the problem is that the Nato allies went into the war in 2003 without a common strategy, or a common narrative. Countries such as Germany and the Netherlands persuaded their parliaments that the job was about peace-keeping, not fighting Taliban insurgents. Germany and France also sent special forces to join the US in Operation Enduring Freedom – fighting the Taliban and hunting for al-Qaeda – but they kept it secret.
The British, Dutch and Danes are now much more open that it is a real war, and that Nato’s survival is on the line. Others, including the Germans, are not. There is a logical reason.
“The more the Europeans build it up as make-or-break for Nato, or suggest ‘our security is on the line’, the more they set themselves up for failure,” says a European diplomat. “By keeping it low key, they keep an exit strategy.”
The danger for Nato is two-fold. Without greater European commitment, the war will be “Americanised”, and risk becoming yet more unpopular in Europe. As for the alliance, it is becoming a “coalition of the willing” by default. The fundamental assumption of Nato solidarity is called into question. That is more dangerous than losing the war.
Get alerts on Afghanistan when a new story is published