More about the personality of Obama than about political priorities

Centre d’étude de la vie politique, Université libre de Bruxelles

The presidential elections in the United States of America were extensively covered by the Belgian press, however, it must be noted that the focus was on Obama’s personality, career and the USA electoral system and not on the impact for transatlantic relations.[1] Nevertheless, if we have to define the three main elements relevant for the EU-US relationship, it would be NATO, the place of Europe in the world after the inauguration and finally, climate change and human rights.
Firstly, NATO seems to be an important issue for a potential revitalisation of the EU-US relationship. Indeed, “from the American perspective the foremost issue in transatlantic relations is now NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. Barack Obama has made it very clear that the war in Afghanistan is his top priority. The United States is expected to significantly increase their military presence in Afghanistan and will be expecting a significant commitment from their allies.”[2] However, Belgian politicians stressed the differences between the EU’s and the USA’s vision of NATO. According to them, NATO is seen by the Europeans as a regional defense organisation whereas the Americans see it as a global political actor. They also feared that the new USA administration would ask the EU to intervene more in international affairs.[3]
The place of Europe
Indeed, the reactions and expectations are diverse concerning the EU’s involvement in international affairs after the inauguration of Barack Obama. On the one hand, some feared that the EU would be left aside. During the long transition period between Bush and Obama, the EU (through its Council’s President Nicolas Sarkozy) could be very involved in international affairs,[4] while for some commentators, it would not be possible once Obama is in office. On the other hand, others were more optimistic about the EU-USA relationship, hoping the EU will still have a say in world affairs, especially with the good relations between the USA and the Czech Republic (the new EU-Presidency).[5] A high level of goodwill from Obama in Europe was also highlighted by Katya Long although she also stressed that “Europeans should not expect a substantive break from the last years of the Bush administration. Indeed, the unilateralist and alienating attitude of the first years of George Bush’s presidency has since been replaced with a more traditional realist approach to foreign policy. Although Barack Obama is a liberal, he is also a pragmatist and if it is undoubtful that he will re-engage with the world with strong diplomacy he will remain the President of the United States, committed to the interests of his country.”[6]
Climate change and human rights
Finally, “[t]here are two subjects however where Barack Obama’s attitude will be markedly different from that of his predecessor: climate change and human rights. On both these issues it is clear that an Obama administration will engage with the Europeans. One might expect strong American leadership on climate change and the closing of Guantanamo as well as the end of the practise of torture in interrogations will allow Europeans and Americans to work more closely on issues of counter-terrorism. Perhaps the most significant change will be on the level of discourse: where George Bush always emphasized America’s capacity to do things on her own, Barack Obama repeatedly says that the issues that are faced (terrorism, economic crisis, climate change) are global and need an international response”.[7]

[1] See Le Vif l’Express, 5 November 2008, available at: (last access: 12 February 2009); Le Soir, 22 November 2008, 17 December 2008, available at: (last access: 12 February 2009).

[2] Interview with Katya Long, FNRS researcher at the Université libre de Bruxelles, specialist in American politics, 12 January 2009.

[3] Audition of Javier Solana in the Committee for External Relations and Defense and the Federal Advice Committee in charge of European Affairs, Report realised for the Federal Advice Committee in charge of European Affairs, 25 November 2008, Report CRIV 52 COM 378 (Chamber), for more details on Belgium and NATO, see point III of this report.

[4] See Le Vif l’Express, 6 January 2009, available at: (last access: 12 February 2009).

[5] Face à l’info, La première (radio station), 06 January 2009, available at: (last access: 12 February 2009).

[6] Interview with Katya Long, FNRS researcher at the Université libre de Bruxelles, specialist in American politics, 12 January 2009.

[7] Ibid.