One at a time, President Barack Obama is alienating America’s European allies. First there was the embarrassingly crude snub of Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Great Britain, who was denied the courtesy of a joint press conference with the president on his recent Washington trip and was sent packing with a disastrously cheap official gift: a DVD collection that Brown cannot even view in London. By comparison, Obama was treated like royalty in Britain at the G-20. However, the gift he presented Queen Elizabeth, an iPod loaded with Broadway show tunes, left some scratching their heads.
But if the president’s behavior toward America’s best friend is a scandal, then his treatment of the president of America’s oldest ally is an international incident. Obama has publicly snubbed French President Nicholas Sarkozy three times since being elected, and now it is coming back to bite him.
Then president-elect Obama refused to meet with Sarkozy in Washington after his election. As president, Obama wrote to former French President Jacques Chirac and pledged that the United States would work with Chirac’s organization to “build a safer world,” words usually reserved for the current head of state. The insults culminated last week at the G-20, when Obama refused an invitation from Sarkozy to tour the American Cemetery and dine in Normandy on his way from London to Strasbourg for the NATO summit. The reason given for the refusal was that the Obama Administration did not want to upset the Germans. The Normandy visit in particular should have been a no-brainer for a president who pledged to rebuild America’s relationships with Europe.
Sarkozy is not taking all of this lying down. He had a frank assessment of Obama in the wake of his European tour, which was no doubt motivated by the less than friendly way in which Obama has kicked off his relationship with the French.
Mr Sarkozy is pouring cold water on President Obama’s efforts to recast American leadership on the world stage, depicting them as unoriginal, unsubstantial and overrated. Behind leaks and briefings from the Elysée Palace lies Mr Sarkozy’s irritation at the rock-star welcome that Europe gave Mr Obama on his Europan tour earlier this month.
The American President’s call “to free the world of the menace of a nuclear nightmare” was hot air, Mr Sarkozy’s diplomatic staff told him in a report. “It was rhetoric – not a speech on American security policy but an export model aimed at improving the image of the United States,” they said. Most of Mr Obama’s proposals had already been made by the Bush administration and Washington was dragging its feet on disarmament and treaties against nuclear proliferation, the leaked report said.
Personal pique and French politics are also behind the souring of Mr Sarkozy’s self-promoted honeymoon with the United States. On the personal side, the French President is needled by the adulation for an unproven US leader whose stardom has eclipsed what he sees as his established record as a world troubleshooter. “The President is annoyed by what he sees as the naivety and the herd mentality of the media,” said a journalist who is privy to Elysée thinking.
What started as a careless disregard for Sarkozy is quickly turning into an ugly personal feud. The truly sad part of this whole affair is that Sarkozy at his core is an America-phile. He is the one leader among the United States’ traditional Western allies who truly wants to be pro-American. But one too many tastes of the back of Obama’s hand is turning him against the Administration, and reminding France of the dim view it takes of America’s leading role in the world.