Shadow Government

Foreign policy shrapnel, when Europe blows

There is a strong temptation to take European stability for granted. After an exceedingly shaky start to the 20th Century, Europe got its act together, overcame animosities, and became a steady and supportive ally of the United States.

Perhaps for this reason, when foreign policy cognoscenti run down threats on the global horizon -- or at least issues that are likely to feature prominently between now and the next U.S. presidential election -- there is a temptation to cite China, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela, and perhaps pending trade agreements with partners in Latin America and across the Pacific. I have heard discussions in which Europe was omitted entirely.

Beyond Europe's history of stability, this may also have to do with the language used to describe Europe's brewing financial crisis. The articles dwell on yield spreads, credit default swaps, and risks to central bank balance sheets. The issue just begs to be relegated to the back business pages. But it would be misplaced.

The serious economic implications alone should earn the story a front-page spot above the fold (for you kids out there, that's the equivalent of a prominent link with a large font). At least the economic issues have received some careful scrutiny (see here and here). What if you're an old-school, throw-weight and Congress of Vienna foreign policy type? Herewith, four first-order foreign policy implications:

1. Relations between European countries could dramatically worsen. The tensions that union was meant to bury are apparently not as deep as one might have thought. A year ago, when the first Greek bailout was under discussion, some German parliamentarians suggested that the profligate Greeks should just sell off some islands. "We give you cash, you give us Corfu," one paper offered. Greeks responded with recollections of Nazi plunder and atrocities. Meanwhile, countries like Spain, with strikingly high unemployment, are being told to launch austerity programs, under the tutelage of the Germans and the French. Any potential for resentment there?

2. Broken promises and unbearable burdens can spur resurgent nationalism. When Germans gave up their beloved Deutsche Mark, they were assured that the strength of the Euro would be paramount and bailouts would be verboten. Now Europe's leaders have clarified that there would be no bailouts, except in case of emergency (but presumably still ruling out non-emergency bailouts, should that issue ever arise). The more prosperous nations of Europe are racking up significant liabilities through their handling of the crisis, often in opaque ways. This has already led to the rise of parties like the True Finns. It is not hard to imagine less-benign movements who point to the threat of inflation and painful budget cuts and claim that their leaders have betrayed their nation to serve foreign interests. There is some precedent (see Weimar Germany). And how long will comity hold among political parties in the troubled countries at Europe's periphery (Ireland, Portugal, Spain)? As austerity bites and unemployment rises, we can only hope that the policy objections come from politicians channeling the critiques of non-European economists, as opposed to demagogues peddling more pernicious prescriptions.

3. This raises core issues for the G-20. The prestige of the new, premiere forum for handling international issues is at stake with efforts to push global rebalancing. One of the major obstacles to progress in Seoul last fall was Germany's objection to proposals to have objective criteria for when countries' imbalances are excessive. The G-20 was left with a long, tedious process of trying to come up with euphemisms for "excessive current account imbalance." Nor is the G-20 the only institution of global economic governance that is implicated. The IMF is a direct participant in the European bailouts, a fact which is coloring discussions over a new Managing Director.

4. This severely undercuts a more multilateral approach to foreign policy. The Obama administration has tried to distinguish itself from its predecessor by stressing the need to enlist more partners in cooperative endeavors (though, as Josh Rogin has reported, this has not always played out as advertised). The number of major potential partners in global undertakings is relatively limited. If Europe's time, money, and focus are consumed by internal crises, then it will be less willing and able to join the United States in leading multilateral efforts elsewhere in the world.

Decades of European stability have been a wonderful boon. It is hard to see how that stability survives the continent's current economic crisis. If Europe falters, the ramifications will not be limited to the world of finance.

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Shadow Government

If you want a friend in Washington, look abroad

This recent Politico story raises again what remains an ongoing puzzle of President Obama's administration: Why has Obama thus far failed to form substantial friendships with other world leaders?  Now well into the third year of his presidency, Obama's lack of personal connections with his global counterparts stands in sharp contrast to just about all of his modern-day predecessors. President George W. Bush enjoyed strong friendships with multiple leaders, particularly Britain's Tony Blair, Australia's John Howard, Spain's Jose Maria Aznar, and Japan's Junichiro Koizumi. President Clinton's tight bonds with many leaders included Blair and Boris Yeltsin. President George H.W. Bush's global friendships were legion, including John Major and Helmut Kohl, as were Reagan's alliances with the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and even Pope John Paul II. Even President Carter, who had fewer friendships on the global stage, depended on his personal bond with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to complete the Camp David peace accords.

The question of relational bonds is not a trivial matter of procuring gossipy material for a future presidential memoir or expanding the tight circle of golf buddies. It is a core component of statecraft. An effective foreign policy includes at least four elements: a strategy and policy priorities, the resources (economic, diplomatic, military) to carry out the strategy, the system to implement the strategy, and the personal relationships with other leaders that facilitate development and advancement of the strategy and policies at both ends. This last element is the one that you won't learn about in international relations textbooks or graduate seminars, but as just about any experienced policy-maker will say, it is essential to the craft of foreign policy.

Close personal ties can often be forged in the crucible of a crisis as leaders work together to address a common problem. But the most enduring relationships are often ones that a president establishes proactively, before a crisis hits. Former Secretary of State George Shultz famously described this as the "gardening" process, in which a president or cabinet official proactively cultivates friendships with other leaders for their own sakes, with the understanding that such links might be extraordinarily useful when a crisis hits, as they almost invariably do.

The decisions foreign leaders make about whether to support a U.S. initiative or not take into account numerous factors, including their national interests and domestic politics. But a significant factor is often that leader's personal relationship with the U.S. president -- does he or she respect, trust, understand, and like the president? Will he leverage his personal and political capital on behalf of the president? Does he feel like his advice will be taken into account by the president?

Admittedly, President Obama has been dealt a somewhat weak hand among his foreign counterparts. Traditional U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific such as Japan and Australia have been struggling with weak governments and frequent leadership changes, while our European allies such as France and Germany are led by the erratic Nicolas Sarkozy and the vacillating Angela Merkel - although, as my German Marshall Fund colleague Stephen Szabo has written, the White House was wise to roll out the red carpet for Merkel not as a reward for past reliability but as an inducement for future steadfastness. But there are still candidates aplenty, such as Indian Prime Minister and fellow intellectual Manmohan Singh, or Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or especially Britain's David Cameron, whom, as I have written previously, would seem to be a natural Obama friend -- and after their ping-pong match the other week, may well be on the way to becoming one.

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