One disappointing lesson for the Obama administration from its first year in office is that stratospheric personal popularity in Europe does not necessarily translate into specific policy achievements. Whether the issue was major increases in NATO contributions of combat forces to Afghanistan, resettling Guantanamo detainees, the Copenhagen climate change summit, or even Copenhagen's "talk to the hand" rejection of the Chicago Olympics bid, in Europe Obama's poll ratings were high but achievements were low.
Part of the administration's challenge is that while public opinion can indirectly help shape a policy environment, it is political leaders who directly make policy choices. And in this regard, President Obama has yet to find a reliable European counterpart. Nicolas Sarkozy has at times been outright critical of him, Angela Merkel has been cool, and Silvio Berlusconi is, well, Berlusconi. Then there is Gordon Brown, whose strained relationship with Obama never really recovered from its initial awkwardness.
So as President Obama ends his first year in office and looks ahead to the coming year, an opportunity he should seize in 2010 is to forge a strong partnership with David Cameron and a conservative government in the United Kingdom. Of course this depends on a Tory victory in the upcoming elections (almost certainly on May 6), which while quite likely is by no means certain. But should the Conservatives take power in the UK, Obama will have a valuable chance to press the proverbial "re-set button" with America's most important ally by reaching out to its new leader.
Doing so would revivify the moribund U.S.-U.K. Special Relationship, and more broadly would also help anchor the otherwise adrift U.S.-Europe relationship. Britain's value to the United States comes not merely from the shared history, language, and values of the Anglo-American tradition, but also from the U.K.'s status as a European power that can help bridge the Atlantic, influence other European nations, and take and translate the pulse of the Continent for sometimes befuddled American ears.
The specifics of a Tory foreign policy remain somewhat of an enigma, as do Cameron's own convictions. But in Cameron, Obama would find someone similar to himself: a young, eloquent, personable, ambitious leader eager (in Obama's case, too eager) to break decisively with his unpopular predecessor. And who faces vexing economic challenges of staggering deficits and high unemployment, along with a persistent terrorist threat at home and abroad.
Yes they come from different parties, but then if President Bush and Prime Minister Blair could forge a close relationship across Republican-Labour lines, then Obama and Cameron can forge a partnership across Democrat-Tory lines. Given the profound national security challenges facing both nations in the coming year -- whether Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran's nuclear weapons program, the general al Qaeda threat, or many others -- both leaders will need reliable friends.
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