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By Andre de Nesnera
Washington
02 December 2008

After Barack Obama takes the oath of office January 20 as the 44th President of the United States, his administration will face a host of problems including the global financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and strained relations with Russia. In Focus, VOA's André de Nesnera looks at another issue the Obama administration will have to deal with - relations with Europe.

Analysts agree that after eight years of President Bush's administration, relations between the United States and Europe are in a holding pattern, waiting for Barack Obama to officially take office as the new president.

George W. Bush makes a statement in Rose Garden of White House, 14 Jul 2008
President George W. Bush (file)
Looking back at Mr. Bush's time in office, Charles Kupchan with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says the United States and the European Union have made a remarkable comeback in relations during the last several years.

"The first year was extraordinarily rocky, and the Iraq war brought to a head tensions between the United States and Europe," he said. "But I think in the second term, Bush reached out to the Europeans. The Europeans, at least at the elite level, reciprocated. And on many issues, ranging from Kosovo to Georgia to the financial crisis, there has been a real upturn in U.S.-European cooperation."

Kupchan and other experts say that while relations between President Bush and European leaders have warmed, he still remains a very unpopular president in most European countries. Analysts say that is in large part due to what the Europeans see as Bush's "follow us or get out of the way" policy.

It is no secret that most Europeans wanted to see Barack Obama elected president. While running for office, Mr. Obama visited Europe. And on July 24, he addressed an estimated 200,000 people in Germany's capital, Berlin.

US Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama  delivers a speech at the Victory Column in Berlin, 24 July 2008
Sen. Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Victory Column in Berlin, 24 July 2008
"Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt there will be differences in the future," he said. "But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more - not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice. It is the only way, the one way to protect our common security and advance our common humanity."

Mr. Obama then said America has no better partner than Europe.

"True partnership and true progress requires constant work and sustained sacrifice," he said. "They require sharing the burdens of development and diplomacy, of peace and progress. They require allies who will listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other."

President-elect Barack Obama waves after giving his acceptance speech at Grant Park in Chicago, 4 Nov. 2008
President-elect Barack Obama waves after giving his acceptance speech at Grant Park in Chicago, 4 Nov. 2008
Analysts say Europe's great enthusiasm for Mr. Obama is in large part due to his stated goal of repairing bonds, restoring goodwill and Washington listening to its European allies.

"There was an enthusiasm for what most Europeans understand to be an individual who, again, unlike Bush, they perceive to share most of their deepest ideological and philosophical commitments, both in terms of domestic policy - a more activist stake - but also in terms of foreign policy - a more restrained and less unilateral American foreign policy," said Wess Mitchell, who is with the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis. "That's at least what most Europeans expect to see under an Obama administration."

Analyst Charles Kupchan says there is another reason why many Europeans have embraced Mr. Obama.

"They saw the election of an African-American as a sign of an America that is multicultural, that is diverse, that is young, that is multiracial - in many respects the kinds of developments that many Europeans would like for themselves, but probably will not be able to obtain for quite awhile because of discomfort with minorities that remains across most European nation states," he said. "And so I think that in many respects, there was almost a vicarious pleasure in seeing a younger African-American reach the presidency."

Members of President-elect Obama's inner circle have been trying to lower expectations as he prepares to take the oath of office on January 20. They say the issues facing the United States and Europe are daunting. They include preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons; how to deal with a resurgent Russia; whether to push ahead in bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO; and the question of deploying a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.

US soldier with NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrols Farah province, 05 Mar 2007
US soldier with NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrols Farah province, Afghanistan (file)
But experts say the war in Afghanistan will be an early test for relations between the United States and Europe. Barack Obama wants more U.S. troops sent to southern Afghanistan, where there is fierce fighting against the Taliban. But he also wants other NATO countries, such as Germany, to do the same. German officials have been reluctant to provide troops for dangerous missions.

William Drozdiak, President of The American Council on Germany, says Berlin must show leadership and fulfill its responsibilities to the alliance.

"There's clearly a desire by not just the Obama administration, but by all the other NATO allies - Britain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands - who have troops in southern Afghanistan, who want to see the burden shared equally," he said. "And this whole question of 'caveats,' of opting out of missions that are deemed to be too dangerous, is something that is bad for morale within the alliance."

Experts say that as president, Barack Obama will have a difficult diplomatic mission vis-à-vis Germany - urging Chancellor Angela Merkel to deploy more troops in 2009 at a time when Berlin faces parliamentary elections and German public opinion is against sending soldiers to the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan.

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