Global turbulence tests US alliances

By Stephen Collinson ,AFP

WASHINGTON — Back before campaign promises needed to be cashed, U.S. President Barack Obama told 200,000 Berliners that allies must “trust each other” and vowed to repair bonds torn by George W. Bush’s go-it-alone diplomacy. Six years on, he needs to do some work to make good on that pledge. Sectarian chaos remaking the Middle East, Edward Snowden’s bombshells on U.S. spying in Europe and political choices made in turbulent times, have again put U.S. alliances under pressure. A European swoon spurred by Obama’s Berlin speech as a presidential candidate in 2008 peaked with a premature Nobel peace prize a year later. But when he looked to Asia rather than requiting Europe’s crush, the relationship began to cool. It took Snowden’s revelations to provoke a crisis in Germany where allegations of U.S. Internet and phone surveillance recalled Big Brother East German communists. Germans were furious U.S. spies tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone, and sent the CIA station chief home over a double agent scandal last week. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said U.S. conduct “makes you want to cry.” It’s all a long way from 2008. “Europe had such extraordinary expectations of President Obama and what he could do. We have seen in the last several years, a managing down of those expectations,” said Heather Conley, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Contrition Lacking Though contrition has been lacking from Washington, it may not take too much to make amends: though Obama’s popularity has ebbed – he retained the confidence of 71 percent of Germans in a Pew Research poll, a rating that he would relish at home. Relations with France are better. Paris and Washington combined to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and forged anti-terror alliances in Africa, while beleaguered President Francois Hollande basked in a White House state visit earlier this year. Since then however, spats over a US$9 billion U.S. fine for French bank BNP Paribas and French plans to sell warships to Russia have tempered U.S.-French amity. There is always the “special relationship.”

But Britain has turned from the world stage, preoccupied by its own schizophrenic relations with the EU and Scotland’s flirt with independence. Britain’s constancy as an ally was also questioned when Prime Minister David Cameron couldn’t get parliament to back strikes on Syria over chemical weapons, foreshadowing Obama’s defeat by a war weary Congress. Washington has its own beefs with Europe, as it tires of the EU’s reluctance to toughen sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. The Pentagon meanwhile frets at eroding European defense spending. Still, Obama hails NATO as “the strongest alliance in the world” and traveled to Poland last month to bolster defense guarantees to former Soviet bloc allies.