European leaders are getting a dose of reality about the limits of President Obama’s patience with their long-established diplomatic traditions, as his administration seeks to change nearly two decades of U.S.-European Union summit protocol.
Mr. Obama’s disappointment with European allies during his first year in office, culminating in his decision to skip a long-planned May summit in Madrid, should not come as a surprise, diplomats and analysts said.
In spite of unusual enthusiasm on the Continent about his 2008 election, they said, Europeans have delivered much less than the new president expected on Afghanistan, climate change and other items high on Mr. Obama’s agenda.
Many Europeans have had their own hopes dashed, officials on both sides of the Atlantic said. After eight often testy years dealing with President George W. Bush, they thought Mr. Obama would change the world to their liking, but now realize that any American president will act in his country’s interests first.
“We are in a period of managing down some unrealistic expectations about what the administration was going to do,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs during Mr. Bush’s first term.
“It has to be ironic to some Europeans that Bush didn’t miss a summit” despite the almost constant European criticism of his foreign policy and his unpopularity in Europe, but that it will be Mr. Obama who will skip an annual meeting that has taken place since 1991, Ms. Conley said.
“Europe is taking this awfully badly,” she added.
Le Monde, the leading French daily, noted in an editorial Tuesday, “Bush wasn’t the problem; Obama isn’t the solution. … The allies are discovering that the misunderstandings go beyond personalities.”
Because of Mr. Obama’s absence, Spain, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is likely to cancel the Madrid summit, diplomats said. The White House’s snub was an embarrassment to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and was leaked just days before he was scheduled to meet with Mr. Obama on Friday.
Mr. Zapatero and other top European leaders have attempted to tamp down speculation that the Continent has been downgraded in Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.
“I do not think he has lost interest in the EU,” Mr. Zapatero told a meeting Thursday of the Atlantic Council in Washington.
Administration officials insisted that U.S. relations with the EU are still important, but that they would like to see a change in the way U.S.-EU business is done. For example, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley indicated on Tuesday that the tradition of holding two summits every year - one in Washington and one in Europe - may be too much.
“Obviously, there will be summit meetings in the future, but as to when that occurs, we are still working those details,” he told reporters.
Mr. Crowley cited as a reason for the change the new EU structure under its new Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on Dec. 1. In addition to the system of a rotating presidency, there is now a permanent EU Council president in Brussels. Former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy was elected to that post in November.
“We are at a juncture where the structure has changed, and so the meeting structure is not only at the leader level, but at the ministerial level,” Mr. Crowley said. “All of this is kind of being reassessed in light of architectural changes in Europe.”
Mr. Obama’s decision to skip the Madrid meeting - even as the White House was announcing a presidential trip next month to Indonesia and Australia - has sparked both finger-pointing and soul-searching in Europe. Some have argued that the “snub” reflects a fading significance of the EU on the world stage.
“Until the EU comes up with something actually worth talking about, it’s not surprising that Obama thinks that it’s more important to travel to Asia, South Africa and to attend NATO summits,” Mats Persson of the Euro-skeptic think tank Open Europe wrote this week in London’s Daily Telegraph.
The language coming out of the White House and the State Department suggests that, after six trips to Europe and numerous meetings with his counterparts in the past year, Mr. Obama feels that he has “already done this,” Ms. Conley said.
She noted that during the most recent U.S.-EU summit in Washington in November, Mr. Obama almost scandalized the Europeans by spending only an hour and a half with them and sending Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to host the traditional luncheon.
Helle Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Obama’s attitude toward Europe is also a reflection of his lack of a “European sensitivity and a coherent concept of the West.” She said his decision to skip the Madrid summit reflects his “feeling that he is the first ‘Pacific president,’ as he himself has stated.”
“The administration doesn’t seem to acknowledge that there is anything special about the U.S. relationship with Europe, and it is driving the Europeans crazy,” Ms. Dale said. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton “seems to feel the same way, having turned most of her attention to Asia and Africa.”
She added that, if the Europeans were surprised by Mr. Obama’s desire to spend less time dealing with the EU, they should have listened to remarks by Philip H. Gordon, assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian affairs, in Brussels in September.
“We want to see a strong and united Europe, speaking with one voice. In the best of all possible worlds, that one voice will be saying what we want to hear,” Mr. Gordon said, according to the Web site of Britain’s Economist magazine. “If it is not saying what we want to hear, then we would rather that voice was less united. For the foreseeable future, we will have to have relations with the EU and with nations. You go to the place that can deliver.”
Those unusual public comments were followed by even more candid remarks that stunned many in the audience: “We want to see Europe thinking more strategically, because we think if they do think more strategically, they will think more like Americans.”