Is the Atlantic widening again?

There’s recently been a small flurry of pieces warning that transatlantic relations are starting to sour (again).  First up, the Economist:

A “flashing yellow light”. That is how one American official describes warning signs of trouble between his administration and Europe. Less than a year after Barack Obama’s election, European euphoria over the end of the Bush era is fading. Relations are still far better than in the dark days before the Iraq war. But as the official puts it, there is “a lot of sniping” going back and forth across the Atlantic. And, he adds, there is a recognition at the “highest levels” that such snippiness is becoming unhelpful.

European Union politicians and officials are dismayed that, with a poisonous debate over health reform chewing up his political capital in Congress, Mr Obama may not secure legislation fixing binding emissions targets for America before the climate-change summit in Copenhagen in December. They also think the health-care impasse explains the lack of progress on the Doha world-trade talks. Nor did Europeans enjoy the G20 meeting that Mr Obama hosted in Pittsburgh. Despite hogging a ludicrous number of seats at the table, the EU came away with only one big Europe-specific agreement: alas, for them, it was a plan to cut their voting power at the IMF.

And here are Karen Donfried and Mitchell Reiss in today’s IHT:

Europe is in love with Barack Obama, according to recent polls. But will this affair of the heart be a brief flirtation or something more enduring? Like many relationships, the partners themselves may not really know until times get tough. With troubles looming in Afghanistan and Iran, that day of reckoning is fast approaching.

The United States would clearly welcome greater European help in Afghanistan. Although a majority of Americans are still optimistic about stabilizing Afghanistan, support for “Obama’s war” has been slipping. And recent allegations of President Hamid Karzai’s fraudulent election have caused even staunch conservatives like George Will to question the mission and argue against sending more soldiers. If Republican support for the war erodes, then Mr. Obama will have an uphill battle persuading liberal Democrats that Afghanistan is truly a “war of necessity.”

Some signs suggest that Europe may be content to allow Mr. Obama to go it alone in Afghanistan. Building a new governing coalition in Germany, moving forward with the E.U.’s Lisbon Treaty after the positive referendum outcome in Ireland, and forming a new European Commission will, at least in the short term, focus time and attention inward instead of on the common, global challenges that Europe and America face.

Of all those challenges, Afghanistan was the one the two sides of the Atlantic committed themselves to meeting together. All 28 NATO members participate in the International Security Assistance Force deployed there. Can President Obama look to them to do more, as Americans step up their own commitment?

Ahem, maybe not so much. I added my own musings in last week’s European Voice:

At the United Nations and G20 summits, US President Barack Obama gave the clearest picture yet of his world view. There was much to please European leaders – but much to worry them too.

Obama is committed to multilateral-ism, but his agenda goes beyond respecting international law and atoning for the sins of the George W. Bush administration. It includes reshaping international institutions to reflect the shift in the balance of power towards Asia.

The US strategy comes down to a bet that big power bargaining at the G20 and UN with Russia, China and India will deliver more on a host of issues – not only the economy and Iran, but also general nuclear disarmament – than hunkering down with European allies.

Europe has not, after all, come up with many new troops to help the US in Afghanistan. With American public opinion turning against the anti-Taliban campaign, the US may also need to turn to Moscow, Beijing and Delhi to help bring some order to central Asia.

European leaders face a strategic dilemma. They approve of Obama’s multilateralist trajectory, but are not guaranteed a place in the resulting global order.

So what happens next? Back to the Economist, to give the Obama team the final word (for now):

In Brussels on September 30th America’s assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Philip Gordon, warned the Europeans that the Obama administration needed something in return for its punt on multilateralism. If “in a year from now”, Europeans have not decided to offer more help in Afghanistan and tougher sanctions on Iran, he said, “plenty of Americans will say, you know what, let’s do it our way.”