Matt Frei: Europe and the Perils of Obamamania

In Berlin his face stares out from T shirts and baseball caps. In Naples one enterprising restaurant has named a pizza after him (toppings: pineapple chunks and bacon). In Britain he enjoys an approval rating of 74 percent—compared with his opponent's 42 percent and Prime Minister Gordon Brown's measly 28 percent. In just about every European language the name "Obama" echoes through corridors of power, schoolyards and coiffeur salons like a mantra. Much of the continent has eagerly replaced its loathing of George W. Bush with fierce love for a 46-year-old Illinois senator who has yet to be elected to the White House.

The United States, it turns out, can still shock and awe the world, albeit not in the way the Pentagon might have intended. This election has reminded Europeans—favorably—of America's origins as a revolutionary state, one founded on some very European ideals. They're fascinated by the prospect of a black man's taking on the most powerful job in the world: despite the byzantine intricacies of superdelegates, caucuses and primaries, even my plumber in London wants to chew the fat about swing states. That's good news for those despairing transatlantic souls who had feared that anti-Bush sentiments abroad were morphing into virulent, permanent anti-Americanism. It may, however, turn out to be bad news for the candidate who has inspired so much adoration.

Obama needs to clinch the election in the swing counties of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, not in Maastricht or Milan. In those heartland states Obama fever was greeted with indifference during the primaries—and having a thriving European fan base isn't necessarily a selling point. In the 2004 election, the cosmopolitan, multilingual exoticism of Teresa Heinz Kerry merely reinforced the impression that her husband, John, was too aloof and otherworldly. Britain's Guardian newspaper didn't help when it called on its readers to write to every single voter in Clark County, Ohio, beseeching them to cast a vote for Kerry. On election night Clark went for Bush, helping him to win Ohio and thus the presidency.

Obama's popularity abroad no doubt appeals to many other American voters. Having been needled by John McCain for his supposed foreign-policy inexperience, Obama is reportedly planning a tour of Europe and the Middle East before the summer conventions. He will no doubt be mobbed like a rock star in London, Paris, Rome or wherever else he decides to land, which will warm the hearts of those who believe that only he can restore America's image in the world. But Europeans need to remember that they do not have the power to make Obama president, nor to make his presidency a success. Only American supporters—in numbers sufficient for him to overcome some fairly entrenched interests in Washington—do.

The Europeans should also be careful what they wish for. For now they have the luxury of being little more than infatuated ringside observers of the U.S. election. But once a President Obama engages with America's allies, he will also expect them to deliver. This week his senior foreign-policy adviser Susan Rice told me—in no uncertain terms—that if elected, "Europe can no longer hide behind its dislike for George Bush." A confrontation could come about in a number of practical and potentially awkward ways. Imagine President Obama's sticking to his campaign promise to withdraw one or two combat brigades from Iraq every month. Guess who will be asked to fill any security gaps if and when they should arise? Rice told me that Obama would also expect NATO to do more in Afghanistan. How easy will it be for the German Bundeswehr or the Italian Bersaglieri to avoid the parts of Afghanistan where all the fighting takes place if and when President Obama gets on the phone to ask for their help?

Trade is another issue where the honeymoon could be short-lived. The Obama campaign has virtually issued an ultimatum to Mexico and Canada to renegotiate NAFTA on American terms—or else. It has done this presumably to pander to much-needed union votes, despite the fact that the deal has increased the flow of trade among the three countries from $341 billion in 1993 to $1 trillion in 2007. If the Obama camp is playing hardball on NAFTA, who is to say it won't do the same on Microsoft, Airbus vs. Boeing, steel tariffs and all the other trade issues that have created bad blood between Europe and the United States?

The German politician Karsten Voigt recently said that Barack Obama amounted to the second coming of President Kennedy. But even the first coming was fraught. Europe adored the Kennedy campaign but doubted the young president's ability to handle the Cuban missile crisis after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. None of this is to suggest that Barack Obama wouldn't conjure his own "Ich bin ein Berliner" moment. His rhetorical skills, combined with his multicultural background, could herald a new and constructive marriage across the Atlantic. But if Europeans want to help themselves—and help Barack Obama—they would do well to buy fewer T shirts and lower their expectations.