The last time Barack Obama intervened in European politics was during the Brexit referendum campaign. Coming out for the Remain camp, Obama backed the UK’s membership of the EU on the grounds of economic stability. He even appeared to dangle a sharp object over the Leave camp. The outgoing president claimed Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for a trade deal with the US. In other words, the UK is worth more in the EU than outside it.

The British right began circling Obama soon after his speech. Anti-American jibes became fashionable among conservatives again. Suddenly, you could read Boris Johnson rambling on about the president’s Kenyan ancestry and how these roots informed his anti-British prejudices in utero. It was a bizarre few days. Apparently, Obama always hated the British. That’s why he handed back the Churchill bust.

These same quarters began to see Donald Trump’s victory as an opportunity to renew the ‘special relationship’. British politicians were soon climbing over each other to kneel before the next president. It caused some fuss that Nigel Farage beat Theresa May to meeting Trump. All of this is a testament to the servility of the British political class. But they would rather dress it up as a ‘special relationship’.

Yet Obama’s relationship with Europe much broader than this. Obama’s time in office has charted key events. The EU has been shaken to its core by an economic crisis, everywhere right-wing populism seems to be on the march and Brexit poses a break with the status quo. Meanwhile the project seems to be facing new challenges on its doorstep: the refugee crisis, civil war in Ukraine and atrocities in Turkey.

A Greater Europe

The Obama administration has tried to maintain the American-European alliance. This meant support for the EU as the project for a ‘Greater Europe’. At the centre, Germany and France had come together to overcome the competition between their elites. This alliance was expanded to include the UK and other countries. It is now composed of nearly thirty member-states. But EU expansion has always been controversial.

History is full of ironies. Charles de Gaulle opposed British entry into the European Economic Community. He saw ‘perfidious Albion’ was an extension of the United States, the NATO agenda to bound Western Europe to Washington. The French right wanted to lead the European project, using the German economy as a horse for its own chariot. But this was not to be.

The whole point of the EU and NATO has been to wed the European powers to the US under German leadership. Much like in East Asia, where American governments would try to reinstate Japan as the leading economic power – the US wanted Germany as the leading power in Europe. This shows up the absurdity of the so-called ‘special relationship’. The UK is one major European state, it is not necessarily the main player in Europe.

Of course, peace in Europe really meant within the EU. Outside the EU, in places like Ukraine and the Balkans, the story has been quite different. For starters, European powers supported the breakup of Yugoslavia to expand southwards. In Ukraine, the Euromaidan uprising saw a realignment with the EU as necessary to move further away from Russian influence. Faced with this, Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Crimea and began to destabilise the rest of Ukraine.

The cases of Ukraine and the Balkans are not isolated. The periphery is where the EU project reveals itself. Thus, the Greek debt crisis threatens the credibility of the Eurozone. If Greece can default, then Portugal and Spain will soon follow. If Portugal and Spain can do this, Italy and Ireland could follow. As in other foreign policy areas, the Obama administration has sought out stability in the EU.

The Obama administration may have preferred a more restrained austerity in Europe, just for the sake of the economic order. This may be why the IMF was more sceptical of another round of austerity being imposed on Greece. Even still, the IMF found itself outvoted by the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Though the US is still the dominant power in the world today, its power is not absolute.

Old Enemies, New Crises

Much like in East Asia, where the US aimed to reinstate Japan as the leading economy to maintain its own hold on the Pacific. This plan was first threatened by the ‘loss’ of China in 1949, then came the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Both fought to secure the post-war settlement. Likewise, the US rebuilt West Germany to secure its hold on the future of Europe. Here we find Russia is the ‘outlier’ trying to maintain its own sphere of influence.

As the Euromaidan demonstrations forced out Viktor Yanukovych, the activists pushed for closer ties with the EU and the consensus in Ukraine was still very much against joining NATO. Once Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, the support for NATO membership increased dramatically in Ukraine. The tensions with Russia served to validate US policy, and vice versa Putin used NATO as a pretext for aggression. It wasn’t always like this, though.

Many Russian liberals began to look westward in the early 1990s. They saw Russia as part of a ‘Greater West’, fit to join the EU, even suited for NATO membership. Incidentally, Boris Yeltsin tabled this idea in 1991, but the US was totally opposed to Russia joining NATO. The US feared it would lose its allies should Germany and Russia forge closer ties. The North Atlantic alliance may be rendered void in such a scenario.

However, this also shows that the Russian government is not anti-Western by nature. Every US administration has tried to ‘reset’ its relations with Russia. Obama tried to repair ties following the Georgian war. But each time the relationship is ‘soured’. Most recently, the split reopened over Ukraine and Obama sought to contain Russia economically. Now Putin is vying for another ‘reset’ once Trump is in office.

As we look back on the Obama years, we find a cautious president looking to stabilise the system amid turbulent times. And the fundamental problems remain in place: tensions with Russia may be inevitable for if NATO continues to expand, and the EU will face economic crisis as it remains wedded to the neoliberal model. This in turn has reinforced the appeals of nationalism. These flaws may be fatal in the end.

Photograph courtesy of Herman Van Rompuy. Published under a Creative Commons license.