The Obama team is prepping for what many summit-watchers are saying is going to be a tough entente with European leaders this week. How did transatlantic ties get so weak?
While transatlantic relations have been some of the strongest in global diplomacy since World War II, the economic crisis highlights just how little the U.S. and Europe really know each other.
Obama had one of the more jubilant shows of support in Berlin during his "world tour" running up to the election with over 500,000 Germans showing up to hear him speak at an event that was an overt homage to Kennedy's 1963 "Berliner" visit. But the idolization has gone a bit flaccid. Things looked to be on the mend with the announced closure of Guantanamo, but plans for a new mission in Afghanistan, which could involve significant NATO collaboration, are not popular in Europe. And the effort to coordinate spending plans to confront the crisis has not gotten much traction either.
One thing European delegations will be encountering at the G20 is an immense knowledge gap on the American side. In recent weeks, phone calls from Europe to pre-plan talking points have gone unanswered at the US Treasury due to staffing shortages. Der Speigel reported Obama's top economic expert Lawrence Summers, in the absence of his own advisors on the European economy, had to meet in person with a German diplomat to review the fine points of that country's stimulus measures.
Behind the political machinations, it's wise to remember most of the continent has approached the crisis from a profoundly different philosophical standpoint than the US. Europe has a built-in safety net in the form of immense social spending and welfare measures. In short, the rainy day funds the US is in the process of legislating have been in place in Europe for decades. With the exception of the newer Eastern European economies, most countries do not have to confront contracting GNP's by mass layoffs. Workers have customarily been given furloughs, unpaid vacation, and early retirement instead. One program the Obama people will have to digest very quickly is Germany's Kurzabeit, or "short work," which allows half-time options in lieu of the dole. But let's hope "short work" is not the only outcome of this week's meeting.