U.S. President Barack Obama has been given a red-hot welcome on his arrival in Europe – despite being decidedly cool in his approach to the continent, in contrast to previous U.S. presidents.
Obama and first lady Michelle were greeted Monday by massive and enthusiastic crowds on the streets of Dublin and Moneygall on the Irish leg of their six-day European tour.
And after travel concerns sparked by a cloud of ash spreading from Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano forced them to leave Ireland early, the couple are now enjoying their first state visit to the UK – complete with a banquet at Buckingham Palace, and a barbecue in the garden of the prime minister’s official Downing Street residence.
But Obama has made much of the fact that the U.S. will be orienting itself more towards Asia in future – so is the Europe visit simply window-dressing, or is the president looking to reboot transatlantic relations?
Robin Niblett, director of independent London-based think tank Chatham House, said the visit was something of a “box-ticking exercise.”
“To a certain extent, there’s the idea that he’s saying ‘I must go back to Europe before a busy election year.’ There was a big push on Europe at the beginning of his term, but since then, he’s been getting on with stuff, and Europe has been rather obsessed with itself because of the euro problems and so on.
“If the trip was all about underscoring how important Europe is to America, you wouldn’t really go to the places he’s going to. Instead the visit is more of a nice photo opportunity, burnishing the presidential image in the lead-up to a tough election campaign.”
The visit to Ireland, particularly, is seen as something of a rite of passage for all American presidents.
“It’s almost part of the constitution nowadays, going to Ireland for the traditional finding of Irish relatives,” said Professor Chris Brown, of the department of international relations at London School of Economics. “Clinton did it, Bush did it, now Obama’s doing it.”
But experts say the trip – which includes the G8 summit in Deauville, France — will also be an occasion for important discussions: On Libya and the Arab Spring, on the IMF, and on Israel and the Middle East peace process.
Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C. says Europe remains America’s key ally on many of those issues.
“Europe is the political and economic base for the U.S. when it deals with a whole range of global challenges: If we can agree, across the Atlantic, we are usually the core of any coalition that gets anything done, globally; and if we disagree across the Atlantic we usually stop anything from getting done,” he told CNN.
But he said the focus of world attention had necessarily shifted in recent decades, towards China and South Asia.
There is a sense that ever since the end of the Cold War, there has been less of a focus on Europe, that it is no longer the fulcrum of world politics, which it was 25 years or so ago,” said Brown.
“And I think at the moment there is a feeling within the U.S. administration that the Western European powers are not being spectacularly helpful.
“It’s probably true to say that Obama is not the most Anglophile or Europhile of U.S. presidents – his orientation is more towards the Pacific,” he said.
But Hamilton said that while Obama is certainly more focused on the Pacific than past U.S. presidents have been, that does not have to come at the expense of Europe.
“It’s not an either/or question,” he told CNN. “Whenever we talk about the Pacific, there is a sense, a fear in Europe that somehow we’re drifting away, but the reality is that we (the U.S.) are both a Pacific and an Atlantic power, and have been for some time.
“The U.S. is realising that it is a pivotal power – it is both Pacific and Atlantic. This is a distinct advantage, and an important role.”
On previous visits to Europe – even before his election – Obama has been greeted like a rock star, by the public and politicians alike. But analysts say that may change slightly this time around.
“In a way, some of the gloss has faded,” said Brown. “He has behaved like an American president, and Europeans don’t like it when he does that — they want him to behave like a European.
“But he still has the capacity to woo a crowd, and he plays a lot better here than at home, in some respects – his ‘liberal democrat’ position is more popular here than in, say, Kansas.”