While the European Union focuses on upcoming Copenhagen climate talks, President Obama's lack of urgency illustrates inherent differences on global governance, Reginald Dale finds.

“2009 is the first year of global governance”
Herman Van Rompuy, new president of the EU’s European Council

Amid the rejoicing in Europe over President Barack Obama’s election victory last November, few were more excited than the keepers of the European flame in Brussels. These guardians of traditional EU orthodoxy believe not only in ever-closer European unification, but also that the sovereignty-sharing European Union should serve as a model for wider world governance – soft power and multilateral negotiations are their watchwords.

More than a year later, these Europeans are bitterly disappointed that Obama has not led the planet in their desired direction, although, as shown by the above comment made by Belgian Prime Minister Van Rompuy in November, they have not abandoned their ambitions. Van Rompuy cites G20 management of the world economy and a new global climate change regime as reasons why global governance is beginning in 2009 – a view that looks over-optimistic even by European standards.

Just appointed first President of the European Council, Van Rompuy is meant to be the EU’s senior representative on the world stage, and euro-enthusiasts had hoped their new president would work closely with Obama to build more structured world institutions. Obama was seen as the first U.S. president to share the EU’s values and international outlook – a man dedicated to diplomacy, negotiation, and multilateralism, listening to ally and enemy alike and subjecting American power to international commitments as never before.

The Europeans, however, over-estimated both Obama’s influence and his attachment to multilateralism, and underestimated America’s continued fondness for its national sovereignty. The scant attention Obama pays to European views has added to the sense of letdown.

Nothing embodies this disillusionment more vividly than the lack of U.S. leadership in the UN negotiations on climate change, currently the EU’s most pressing concern, which move to summit level in Copenhagen this month. After Obama’s election, many imagined he would quickly swing the United States in line with Europe’s pioneering anti-emission policies, and support new forms of global management to enforce a “post-Kyoto” climate change regime, hopefully based on a world-wide cap-and-trade system, by the end of this year.

Now, however, many European leaders, environmentalists and ordinary citizens are dismayed at America’s unpreparedness to strike a meaningful deal in Copenhagen. They are puzzled by Obama’s lack of urgency in pushing the necessary legislation through Congress, and they are shocked that Obama is not giving climate change the top priority that Europe does – instead of letting himself get bogged down in the morass of health care reform, with equally complex plans for changes in financial regulations next on the list.

There are many reasons, however, why European disenchantment is not so surprising. Fundamental differences over global governance have long been at the heart of policy rifts between the EU and the United States. Over the past half century, Europeans have progressively pooled their sovereignty in the European Union and become used to complying with decisions made jointly with their EU partners, rather than by their own governments acting alone. Europeans are familiar with implementing mandatory decisions negotiated in a broader international framework.

The United States, on the other hand, is still used to calling the shots in international institutions and remains reluctant to bargain away its sovereignty. Despite Obama’s frequent promises that no one power should dominate the rest, Americans still don’t like being told what to do by foreigners. Whether as a result of disposition, history, or sovereignty concerns, most Americans are much less willing than Europeans to accept regimes decreed by international organizations.

It is not just a question of recent history. Most continental European countries, especially those with strong Catholic traditions, have for centuries been “top-down” societies in which power and authority flow from the top (king, dictator, pope) downward, while America, Britain and a handful of North European continental countries are “bottom-up” societies, in which power flows upward from the people, from whom political authority is derived. The distinction is clearly visible in the climate change debate, where much of the European Union is happy with the idea of global rules and emission targets mandated by an international body, whereas the United States has approached the issue from the other end.

In America, increasing acceptance of action against climate change has permeated upward from local and state initiatives, together with activities by pressure groups and non-governmental organizations, and has reached Washington last. America’s way is to participate in international actions by undertaking voluntary measures, developed through its own political processes, rather than yielding to foreign mandates. Even under Obama, the United States – and the U.S. Congress – will not submit key decisions over American energy and environmental policies to international control. Indeed the U.S. proposal for emissions cuts in Copenhagen will reflect the maximum that Obama thinks he can wring from Congress to accept and will not be subject to negotiation, whereas the EU is ready to go beyond its already more stringent opening position if others will, too.

Obama has not in fact been presenting climate change as justifying more international intervention in the U.S. economy. On the contrary, when Democratic Senators John Kerry (Massachusetts) and Barbara Boxer (California) introduced their climate change bill at the end of September, Obama welcomed it as “one step closer to putting America in control of our energy future.” The exact same point was made by Kerry, who also placed action to try to counter climate change predominantly in an American national context. Like Kerry, Boxer said the problem should be solved by the ingenuity of American workers – “we must seize this opportunity or others will move ahead.” This is not the language of global governance.

Nor has Obama lived up to his “multilateral” rhetoric in practice. Apart from his failure to prioritize international action on climate change, he has neglected the other great multilateral undertaking currently under way, the Doha Round of world trade talks, which desperately needs vigorous American input. His claims to have initiated new forms of international cooperation through the G20 and the Major Economies Forum on climate change are spurious. Both institutions originated under President George W. Bush.

What’s more, rising powers such as China, India and Brazil are not multilateralists either, and are even less likely than America to accept EU-style global governance. In international negotiations, they are just as jealous of their sovereignty as is the United States, if not more so – and even the European Union itself is turning away from constant political and governmental integration.

The entry into force of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty Dec. 1 will streamline the Union’s institutions, but will not mark a quantum leap toward greater supranationality, for which there is no longer much appetite in Europe. How the climate change negotiations evolve in the months and years ahead will thus present a test case of whether and how far the world is ready for the kind of global governance sought by Van Rompuy and his ilk. It is not a done deal.

The issue is not, however, going to go away. The financial crisis has provoked new efforts to tighten regulations at global level, and there is mounting pressure for the introduction of global taxes – such as a tax on international air fares, or the so-called Tobin tax on foreign exchange and/or other financial transactions. As such plans are hatched, unknown to most of the globe’s citizens, it is high time for someone – preferably the United States – to ask how the bedrock principle of “no taxation without representation” applies in such cases.

Here is a great chance for Obama to show U.S. leadership on the nature of future world management. This and related questions of democratic legitimacy need to be raised. Like it or not, the world will continue creeping unevenly toward greater global governance. The entire planet will not, however, look like the European Union any time soon.

Reginald Dale is Director of the CSIS Transatlantic Media Network and a former foreign correspondent, senior editor and commentator for the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune.


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