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Europe's Obama craze cools

Gavin Hewitt | 11:15 UK time, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Barack Obama, 19 Jan 10Inauguration day last year broke cold. Way before dawn there were thousands on the streets, huddled in blankets like homeless people.

The cold was biting, but they would not be deterred - they wanted a vantage point on history. Many were African Americans who could scarcely believe that the day had come when a black man was occupying the White House. I found others, too, from across the globe, drawn there by the belief that America could be different, that under Barack Obama it would live up to its high ideals.

It was inevitable that disappointment would follow. Such is the reality of power. The Europeans had fallen for Obama. It was partly because he was not George Bush. It was also because they wanted America to be a place that fitted their dreams.

Earlier, in 2008, I had stood in the Tiergarten in Berlin and watched tens of thousands of Germans listen to a man who was still only a candidate. For Obama it was a rather leaden speech, too draped in history to inspire the crowd. But later that night there were still people waiting outside his hotel for a glimpse of a man they wanted to be Kennedy. To many Europeans Obama was full of possibility.

The French too had swooned. They loved Obama's style; his youth, his elegance, his mixed background. I remember watchingwhen Obama first visited the Elysee Palace. Sarkozy was left standing on the steps for a good seven or eight minutes while the Obama motorcade threaded its way towards them. The president of France would have done it for few other leaders.

France and Germany. In the poisonous build-up towards the war in Iraq, they had become the "weasels". I recall opening a paper in New York and seeing that the faces of the French and German ministers at the UN had been replaced with those of weasels. Donald Rumsfeld famously sneered at "old Europe".

So a year ago a new dawn broke. Almost immediately Europe nominated Obama for a peace prize. It was a gift for good intentions.

Yet shortly after that Europe experienced Obama's detached cool. There was no rush to get European leaders to the White House. They were vying with each other for an invite, but Obama's world view was not Europe-centred.

In April 2009 the American president came to Prague, at the heart of Europe. It was a message of co-operation. "We affirm our shared values, which are stronger than any force that could drive us apart." Co-operation had to be shared with other nations and institutions. Europeans had hankered after this.

Then Obama offered the dream of a world free of nuclear weapons. He spoke of America's commitment "to seek peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons".

And then reality set in. The nuclear-free world remains but a dream. Afghanistan was going badly. President Obama faced a painful choice: to commit more troops or to scale back. While he agonised, Europe waited. When the American administration finally backed a surge of troops, Europe hesitated. Sure, countries like Italy stepped up. Others made a gesture because they did not want to alienate Obama, but the French and Germans have still to decide what they will do. To some Europeans the Obama world came to resemble much of what went before.

And then there was Copenhagen. Europeans believed they had set the agenda, they had been out in front over climate change. However, in the chaos of the conference they saw Obama do a deal with the Chinese and other emerging "giants". Europe was marginalised and felt excluded.

And the struggle against extremism did not disappear with the demise of a Republican president. President Obama's rhetoric was different, but fighting terrorism was as challenging as ever. Guantanamo Bay remained open. There was no sign that Islamists were in retreat.

Some Europeans had hoped for a breakthrough in the Middle East. It has not happened. The president criticised the Israelis, but they continued building in East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.

The president offered to speak to Iran. The Europeans liked that, but it has not delivered results.

So the love affair has cooled, but it is not over. Europeans like Obama's belief in consultation, in working with allies. His multilateral approach is popular. It remains true that most European leaders still want to be photographed with the president, but underlying everything is a basic reality: residents of the White House have to protect American interests first - and that did not change a year ago.


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