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Europe's Obama Challenge

PARIS – Will the year 2009 and the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency mark the beginning of a new era in transatlantic relations, or will the old divisions linger, nurtured by the depth and gravity of the economic crisis? Will the crisis lead to nationalistic and selfish attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic, stymieing the long-awaited rapprochement, if not a full reconciliation?

It is, of course, too early to tell. Even if the left wing of the European left – like the most liberal of America’s Democrats – voices concerns that Obama has selected a far too centrist cabinet, a classical form of anti-Americanism is bound to recede in Europe. It is very unlikely that Europeans will take to the streets to denounce the “essence” of the United States – what America is as much as what America does – as they did during the Bush era and even during the Clinton years. America’s image in Europe has changed profoundly since November 4, and the style of Obama’s diplomacy once he becomes president will probably confirm that change.

Yet in the realm of transatlantic relations, as is true globally, it is unwise to expect too much from a single man, whatever his exceptional qualities. Fundamental problems remain, and new ones are likely to emerge.

First, whatever the brutal style of the new Russia under Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, the Soviet Union no longer exists and no longer constitutes the common threat that was the “glue” of the Alliance until 1989. Unless something very wrong happens, a new cold war is not about to start.