A Different Europe Greets Obama
When the last American president to step from the Senate into the White House was in the dawn of his presidency I was a student in Europe. Then as now, Europeans were thrilled by his youth, his cool eloquence, his glamorous wife, and their hopes ran high. Europeans would buy Americans a beer just because of the man we had elected - something I did not experience again until this January, almost half a century later. Then as now, you could make the case that the new American president was more popular among Europeans than any of their own leaders.
Like Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy's chances of reaching the presidency had seemed a long shot. There were many who said the country wasn't ready for a Catholic, just as many predicted Obama's race would defeat him.
Kennedy inherited the disastrous Bay of Pigs regime change plan, and then had to face the most dangerous moment of the Cold War: the Cuban missile crisis. But except for resenting the bullying tactics of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, no one in Europe or beyond could dislike Dwight Eisenhower the way they disliked George W. Bush. Nor did Eisenhower leave behind the ruin that Obama inherits - two wars, a recession verging on depression, and the moral bankruptcy of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib that has so damaged America's standing around the world. Obama went out of his way to apologize to old Europe for all that had gone before during the previous eight years.
But what a different world it was in Kennedy's time. The Soviet menace drove Western Europe and America together, and their NATO alliance was the barricade which kept that menace at bay. Today there is no over-arching reason for Europe to accept American leadership, and NATO' s mission is no longer clear.
In JFK's day, the trans-Atlantic alliance trumped all others. India was a socialist country more friendly to Russia than the United States, and China lay impoverished under one of the greatest failures of economic and social planning the world has ever devised. Africa was just emerging from colonialism, and countries like Brazil were not then considered players.
Obama caught some of this shift when he remarked how much simpler it had been when Roosevelt and Churchill could sit down and decide the fate of the free world. In the years since the "big two" became the G7, only to be replaced today in importance by the G20.
As Germany's Angela Merkel once pointed out, Europe represents a far smaller percentage of the world's population than it used to. And economically the power centers are shifting ever eastward toward Asia. Who could have foreseen in the Kennedy years that America would end up a debtor nation to China?
Today, in the post-Bush world, there is a growing hesitancy to accept American leadership - leadership that was unconditional in JFK's time, at least for the non-Communist world. Obama may be personally popular, but there is no hiding the fact that the United States has badly mismanaged its stewardship of the world economy. And, as in America itself, there is great unease about Obama's heavy- spending ways being the road to salvation. Who can blame Germany for worrying about the certain inflation to follow given memories of the 1920s when a million marks in a wheel barrow wouldn't buy in the afternoon what it had in the morning?
Obama is fighting to save capitalism, as Roosevelt did during the Great Depression, but in much of the world American-style capitalism is discredited, and many would rather see something else emerge. Continental Europeans, whom Americans once scorned for their nanny-state economies, now feel justified in resisting the American model.
The world feels itself in transition. There is nothing to replace America yet, but the role it has played since World War II is weakening and alignments are shifting, toward what no one is sure.
And there is another worry, too. As Kennedy edged the United States further into what would become the mother of all quagmires, Vietnam, there is great unease that Obama may be committing his country's resources into what could become something similar in Afghanistan, and Europe doesn't really want to be there.
© 2009 The Boston Globe