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Feb 3, 2009 | 23:41 GMT

9 mins read

Part 2: The Obama Administration and Europe

To download a PDF of this piece click here. Editor's Note: This is the second piece in a series that explores how key countries in various regions have interacted with the United States in the past, and how their relationships with Washington will likely be defined during the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. The United States and Europe are intertwined in a transatlantic alliance that for more than 50 years has secured peace in Europe. Since the end of World War II, the United States has looked to strengthen European unity, first through the Marshall Plan and later by nurturing nascent institutions that would become the European Union, like the European Coal and Steel Community. The overarching U.S. geopolitical imperative, however, is to assure that the Eurasian landmass does not produce a continent-sized challenger capable of threatening American hegemony. Part of the motivation behind Washington's support for EU enlargement is the desire to assure that the European Union never coalesces into a concrete political union. The more EU members, the less coherent the bloc, thus making it less likely that France or Germany will come to dominate the union. Assuring that no Eurasian challenger to the United States appears also means keeping Russia — the state at present most likely to dominate enough territory to threaten the United States — east of the Carpathian Mountains. The United States therefore walks the tightrope of encouraging sufficient European unity to hedge against Russia while preventing the unity that would allow a single European power to rise. Enter the Obama administration, which brings with it the traditional Democratic foreign policy emphasis on Europe. Historically, the Democratic Party has been deeply enmeshed with the U.S. northeastern intellectual and business elite, who are culturally, socially, and most importantly, economically — both through capital and direct trade links — focused on Europe. This has little to do with party ideology and mostly to do with geography and trade routes. Obama therefore comes from a tradition of American leadership that has viewed Europe as a permanent interest and partner of the United States. Below are five countries that STRATFOR feels will be crucial to U.S.-European relations in 2009, and possibly throughout the four years of Obama's term. Along with the European heavyweights of France, Germany and the United Kingdom, we include Central Europe's most powerful country, Poland. We also include the present holder of the EU presidency, the Czech Republic, a state that has risen in Washington's estimation due to U.S. military plans to possibly field a radar installation there.


When strong, unified and not in revolt, France is traditionally the European hyperdynamic statesman, forced to seek alliances due to its geographical location. It is the only country on the Continent that shares a border with every single regional power: Spain, Italy, Germany and, via the English Channel, the United Kingdom. When it is powerful, France pushes for "European unity" with Paris in charge. To this end, it mobilizes its allies and spearheads giant unification campaigns. (Think Charlemagne, Napoleon, de Gaulle, etc.) When it is weak, however, France seeks to build a coalition to constrain the European power of the day. France is now in the process of moving from a period of relative strength to relative weakness. With Germany's return as a major player, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been forced to move France away from its Gaullist tradition to a more defensive strategy. Paris now seeks to manage an alliance to contain (e.g., surround and subsume) Germany. Simply put, Paris instinctively understands that France cannot be globally important without first dominating Europe, and the latter is difficult when Germany has an opinion. Sarkozy will have ample opportunity to become Europe's liaison with the Americans, as under Obama, the United States will look to Europe for help in countering Russia and for assistance in the expanded campaign in Afghanistan. France's changing needs mesh well with American plans in a way they did not under former U.S. President George W. Bush.


Germany is the proverbial man in the middle, surrounded by powers that alone are no match for it, but which collectively can destroy it. As such, Germany's foreign policy is either nonexistent (when it has been defeated or split) or aggressive (when it is attempting to pick off its neighbors one at a time to prevent an alliance against it from forming.) Germany is currently segueing from the weakness of the post-World War II era to the strength of reunification. Because of this evolution, the balance of power in Europe is shifting. In 2009, an increasingly independent and assertive Berlin is looking to develop a foreign policy to match its ambitions. But this cannot happen overnight; Germany is hardly prepared to blitzkrieg its way to Continental domination. So unless Berlin plans on going to war with Russia (and it does not), it needs to find a way to live with Russia, particularly as Germany is so dependent on Russian energy exports. And that means sharing influence with the Russians in the belt of states that separate the two. This will lead Berlin on a collision course not just with its eastern neighbors, but also with those neighbors' security guarantor: the United States. The Obama administration will hope for German support in any future negotiations with Russia, but Berlin will see its separate accommodation with Russia as more important.

United Kingdom

As an island nation, the United Kingdom projects power globally more easily than it does on the European continent. The British imperative involves ensuring that no nation unifies (or conquers) Europe and mobilizes all its resources to invade Britain, as Germany came close to doing in 1940. This geopolitical imperative largely mirrors the U.S. imperative to keep the Eurasian landmass divided, giving the British and the Americans largely complementary interests. (In fact, the U.S. Eurasian strategy was essentially learned from the British.) Nonetheless, Obama might face a cold shoulder from the United Kingdom in 2009 and 2010. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is preoccupied with domestic issues (particularly Britain's worsening economic crisis) and his eventual departure (either through electoral defeat in mid-2010, or even earlier should the Labour Party decide to replace him). Brown will thus be extremely careful not to commit to any grand U.S. campaigns without being certain the move would not hurt him domestically. A timid United Kingdom will not mesh well with Obama's desire to see a Europe more involved with American foreign policy.


Poland's neighbors often see it as a speed bump on the superhighway that is the North European Plain. Warsaw, however, sees the plain as a two-way street. After all, Poland was the strongest European power during much of the 16th and 17th centuries, using the plain to extend its domination of territory from the shores of the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, the Carpathians and the Dnieper River. Therefore, whichever political entity has ruled the land that today comprises Poland has had designs on large portions of the North European Plain, and has considered the Baltic states, most of Ukraine and Belarus as falling into its sphere of influence. Since regaining its political independence after the Cold War, however, Poland has found itself adjacent to a reunified Germany and a resurgent Russia. It has therefore depended on outside allies — in this case the United States — to assure its independence. Poland thus has no interest in a possible U.S. rapprochement with Russia, or in any delay in placing the ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. Poland does want Washington to give it military technology and training so it can maintain its independence — and perhaps even return to the glory days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries. For now, a period of strained relations between Warsaw and Washington due to the change in administrations can be expected. In the long-term, the United States needs a strong Poland to counterbalance an independent Germany and a resurgent Russia, but in the short-term, it needs Russian compliance with American designs for a surge in Afghanistan.

Czech Republic

Enjoying some protection thanks to low mountains and hilly terrain, the Czech Republic is still connected with the rest of Europe by the major river valleys of the Elbe, Oder, Morava and Vltava, which effectively turn the country into a gateway between the North European Plain and Central Europe. As such, the Czech Republic has rarely been able to maintain its independence, increasing its tolerance for incorporation within the confines of larger, more powerful political systems (think Austro-Hungarian Empire and Soviet Union). Prague is therefore going to wait and see which way the wind blows before it chooses what modern political system it wants to be part of this time around. Prague's recent announcement that it intends to delay its vote on the Lisbon Treaty, a key charter intended to streamline decision-making in the European Union, is a clear signal that it plans to hold off on committing to the EU bloc until it is assured that the Americans are committed to European security. This highlights the Czech Republic's pragmatic way of biding its time before making decisions it cannot easily reverse. The Obama administration will not, however, appreciate being rushed into a decision on BMD radar facilities in the Czech Republic by Prague. Washington will hope that Prague, in its six-month role as EU president, will help spearhead the campaign to secure European assistance in Afghanistan and present a unified EU front to Russia. But Prague might not be up to these tasks, both due to its lack of clout among the rest of Europe and in a bid to avoid exposing itself to Kremlin wrath without firm U.S. guarantees.

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