The bells of all Europe'ês cathedrals seemed to ring in unison as the polls closed on Election Night in America earlier this month. In his rhetoric on the domestic campaign trail, President-elect Obama asked Americans to respect the judgment of Europeans that Bush'ês foreign policy had been an abject disaster. So, too, on his controversial summer world tour, Obama acknowledged to a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin that the prevailing attitude in Europe was that America was 'êpart of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right.'ê
It was no surprise that, as results of the American election began appearing on televisions across the European continent, celebration was spontaneous and jubilant. In Leicester, England, for instance, in the days following Obama'ês victory over Senator John McCain, Kwame Boyce-Deacon, a 14-year-old black Briton went to his barber to have the image of Obama shaved into the hair on the back of his head. 'êObama is the first black President of America and I'm the first black model of Obama in Leicester 'ê which is special for me,'ê Boyce-Deacon said.
The euphoric reaction to the idea of America'ês first black president was not confined to capricious Brit teens. Lady Scotland, Britain'ês attorney general, said, 'êThis wonderful election demonstrates that the dream of Martin Luther King that there would come a time when people would be judged not by the colour of their skin but the quality of their character has arrived.'ê
The election represented more than just a repudiation of the Bush Doctrine and validation of European desires to have America resume a partnership role in world affairs, rather than one of leadership. For many Europeans it was a symbol that barriers to minorities were falling further, and for the president-elect, his status as an icon in Europe must have encouraged him to feel that his goals of working with Europe to achieve his foreign policy objectives were attainable.
The unfortunate irony is that the rallying of Europe'ês citizens around a symbol of ethnic minority achievement will be the precise undoing of Obama'ês European agenda.
Although Europe'ês leaders and heads of state most certainly did lean down from their perches of moral superiority to pat the United States on the head and tousle our hair a bit, statements on Obama'ês election ranged from guarded to non-substantive. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Obama'ês election a "historic victory." French President Nicholas Sarkozy proclaimed that his presidency "raised enormous hope in France, Europe and beyond." Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev'ês comments post-election did not even mention President-elect Obama by name. No commendations from Europe'ês top tiers of power for the defeat of racism, just restrained and generic statements of support, typical of those made during any presidential power transition.
With Obama'ês approval ratings in Europe riding higher than those of the continental heads of government, why would these leaders choose to ignore an opportunity to jump on coattails and hail America'ês black champion? To answer that question requires understanding the European climate concerning ethnicity and race. As stated by Trevor Philips, a black politician in the United Kingdom who now heads the British Equality and Human Rights Commission: 'êIt would be very difficult for somebody like Barack Obama to find their way through the way we do things. I don'êt think that the public of this country would be at all resistant to electing a black Prime Minister 'ê¦ My point is that it is very difficult for people who don'êt fit a certain mould — to do with gender, to do with race and to do with class — to find their way into the upper reaches of politics.'ê
A Labour party representative to the British Parliament, Sadiq Khan, addresses the political conditions in a way that shines more light on the quickening that worries Europe'ês establishment.
"In Britain you can't make a brilliant speech and get noticed in the way Barack Obama did. You have to rise up through the ranks in parliament. Our history is different. Mass migration — slavery — took place to America 400 years ago. Condoleezza Rice is the fourth generation of her family to go to university. Our mass migration has only happened over the last 40 to 50 years. But our recent progress has been far steeper than in the US - we have been much quicker."
The reality is, however, that Europe has its own serious problems with immigrant populations and a lack of cultural integration. America has demonstrated that it could elect a minority person to our highest executive office. The spotlight now shines on Europe, and that kind of light cascading through its mirrored halls of power must be blinding to the elite establishment that wants to preserve their own history and traditions while maintaining social harmony.
Despite trivial and anecdotal statistics of interracial and same-gender couples walking down the streets of Paris or Amsterdam without causing a stir, most large European cities have developed ghetto districts of immigrant populations — many from North Africa the Middle East and Central Asia; many culturally Arab, Berber, and Muslim. These communities are typically isolated and dominated by poverty, consume a disproportionate amount of public resources, and often choose not to assimilate into their host country'ês culture. In many such places, as cited by Bruce Bawer in his controversial book While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within, governments grapple with Muslim populations that openly defy Western democracy and the rule of non-Sharia law.
Therefore, when considering its European strategy, the Obama administration must consider the following awkward question: Will the European establishment allow Obama to lead the world when to do so would create an upsurge of potential energy within ethnic communities to fight for proportional representation in government? In turn, that released energy could quickly transform Europe in ways that the establishment is unprepared to handle.
The widespread popularity of Obama among the European people could become a fuel source for minority movements, some of which will openly challenge the legitimacy of the status quo. Obama is already a poster-child for minority movements. With his crowning by some as a world leader, it may not be in the interest of Europe'ês power elite to grant him greater status by allowing him to stand as a leader on the international stage. They would be alienating themselves from their own bases of power, making re-election less likely. Further, an ascendant Obama could be used as a symbolic leader of a broad range of anti-establishment movements.
It would seem then, that Europe will have no choice but to allow the waltz of diplomacy to be conducted while finding ways to bar Obama from taking the lead or the spotlight. President Obama will eventually be forced to operate within the same box as President Bush, pursuing America'ês interests without the support of European leaders. Obama knows that he must appear strong at home. Doing so will mean favoring policies that promote American interests and alienate our allies in Europe. Because of their own domestic concerns, those allies will be more than glad to conduct relations with a style that tips toward adversarial.
The results of Europe not letting Obama "in the room" could be serious. NATO expansion, Russian aggression, and Middle Eastern tensions will all force us to work in some way with Europe to bridge gaps and broker agreements. The emphasis of Obama's foreign policy team should be to formulate strategies that coerce or triangulate Europe, but which do not require voluntary agreement on their part.
There is another possible outcome: Europe could set it itself on a different course. Instead of fighting against minority inclusion and proportional representation they could begin conceiving of ways to reshape a society restrained by so much ivy and stone. When a person of color has assumed the helm of France, Germany or Britain, only then will a minority American president be truly welcomed into the clique of Europe'ês elite.