What do the victories of two relatively inexperienced outsiders, Barak Obama and Mike Huckabee, in the Iowa Caucuses mean for American foreign policy in general and the Atlantic Alliance in particular? It is too soon to predict, on the basis of a plurality of votes cast by a sliver of eligible voters in a small state, who will eventually prevail in the nomination process. But it is not too soon to ask if the Bush Administration’s unfathomably cavalier and gratuitously alienating attitude toward America’s European allies will change substantially on January 20, 2009.
Commentators seem to agree that the voters who chose Obama and Huckabee felt that they were rejecting the status quo. To put the missteps of the past behind them, they apparently voted for the candidates about whom they knew the least. But exactly what status quo did they imagine they were rejecting? Upon inspection, the “politics as usual” that they apparently sought to rebuff looks nebulous. Obama has repeatedly linked Hillary Clinton, whose political team is personally and ideologically committed to wresting power from the current incumbents, to the thinking dominant in Washington from 2001 to 2007. Even more oddly, the genial and erratic Huckabee says that the Mormon former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, represents the powers that be.
To focus the discussion, we can ask the following question: Did the status quo rejected by the Obama’s and Huckabee’s voters include the deterioration of American-European relations under the Presidency of George W. Bush? After all, the current Administration’s denigration of “old Europe” was not just a rhetorical aside, but a centerpiece of its reckless approach to foreign affairs. That is why any serious break with the disastrous Bush legacy should start with rethinking and rebuilding the Atlantic Alliance. That a renewed Atlanticism would be a priority for either Obama or Huckabee is extremely doubtful, however.
Relations between the US and Europe have gone virtually unmentioned in the dozens of Presidential debates held over the past six months. This is not surprising. Candidates have no incentive to focus attention on a subject, such as the strained Atlantic Alliance, that seldom if ever enters the consciousness of the average voter. Obama’s failure to convene a single policy meeting of the Senate European sub-committee which he chairs (a committee that oversees, among other things, US relations with NATO and the EU) has had absolutely zero resonance among the electorate at large. When the topic arises, the Republican candidates, for their part, seem less blandly indifferent than overtly hostile to Europe. Their anti-European animus, while crudely uninformed, reflects, among other factors, the scorn for secularism typical of Southern white evangelicals and the perverse notion promulgated by some distinguished Republican defense intellectuals that Europe today can contribute little or nothing to American security.