Why Obama will soon land in Europe

Many Europeans would like to see him as the next U.S. president. But a transatlantic trip to burnish his credentials will be a balancing act.

Published July 1, 2008 10:40AM (EDT)

What will the new U.S. president mean for Europe? And above all, what will he want from Europe? A group of Europeans and Americans recently engaged in heated debate on the subject on the sidelines of a transatlantic conference at Stanford University.

Charles Kupchan, a former advisor to Bill Clinton and one of America's top experts on Europe, gave a less than euphoric assessment. What will happen, he asked his audience, if the popular Barack Obama comes to Europe as U.S. president and demands much more help in Afghanistan or Iraq? How will the Europeans respond?

These difficult questions won't arise in earnest until next year, but European politicians will soon be able to meet Obama in person. The Democratic contender announced over the weekend that he plans to visit Europe during the presidential campaign. His itinerary includes Paris, London and Berlin.

"France, Germany and the United Kingdom are key anchors of the transatlantic alliance," Obama said. "And I look forward to discussing how we can strengthen our partnership in the years to come."

Ever since the beginning of the presidential primaries there had been speculation that Obama would visit Europe before the election, but his months-long nomination battle against Hillary Clinton kept delaying his travel plans. "I think it might not happen anymore," one Obama advisor had said in an interview just a few weeks ago. The advisor said she had been asked a number of times to prepare a European trip, but the plans kept getting shelved, partly because Obama's strategists regarded a visit to Iraq and Afghanistan as more important.

But now Obama will be visiting several regions. He will travel to Iraq and Afghanistan soon with a congressional delegation. And he will combine his upcoming tour of Europe with a visit to Israel and Jordan.

Those latter two destinations may be more important for his campaign than his brief stopovers in European capitals; some analysts believe Obama still needs to overcome doubts among Jewish American voters about his commitment to the American-Israeli partnership. He also needs to signal his interest in the Middle East peace process.

But photos of Obama in Berlin, Paris and London could help burnish his campaign, too. Measured by firsthand experience, the senator from Illinois hardly knows Europe or its politicians. During the primaries his rival Clinton accused him of neglecting his duty as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on European affairs.

Foreign policy leadership will certainly remain a campaign issue and Republican candidate John McCain never tires of emphasizing his long years of experience in foreign affairs, an area where Obama has little experience to show. Pictures of him alongside European leaders could make him appear more presidential.

It's not clear exactly when Obama will make his trip to Europe; his advisors aren't providing details yet for security reasons. But it is likely to take place in July because he has a full schedule in August, including the selection of his running mate and the party's nominating convention in Denver.

When Obama lands in Germany, he will probably spend only a few hours in Berlin, and it's unlikely that he will address a large audience or meet the public there. One reason may be that too much open euphoria for Obama could damage his election chances at home -- Democrats haven't forgotten how the Republicans labeled John Kerry as too "European" four years ago. It seems unlikely that the German government or the U.S. Embassy will want to give Obama a public stage in the middle of the presidential campaign. It's conceivable that Obama might meet Americans living in Germany to collect campaign donations.

Still, Obama's huge popularity in Germany means many politicians want to meet him as they look ahead to Germany's general election in late 2009. He has inspired the center-left Social Democrats to the extent that the party's general secretary, Hubertus Heil, called out Obama's slogan "Yes We Can" during a recent party meeting. And Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a gushing account of a telephone conversation he had with Obama in April, and will undoubtedly want to meet him.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Obama will definitely meet, is well aware of Obama's broad appeal. But she can't afford to give him an overexuberant reception because that could alienate President George W. Bush, who just visited her a few weeks ago during his European farewell trip and whose father, former President George H.W. Bush, is due to attend the July 4 opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Berlin.

Too much cheering for Obama could also be seen as an affront to McCain. Merkel can't afford to be as outspoken as her government's coordinator on transatlantic relations, Karsten Voigt, who said recently that Berlin would welcome any U.S. presidential candidate -- especially Barack Obama.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon.

By Gregor Peter Schmitz

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Germany