05/08/2013 11:16 am ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

Johnny's Calling -- Is Europe There?

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Secretary of State John Kerry is on his fifth trip abroad since taking the ought, visiting Russia and Italy. Out of five trips, five stops to Europe. In contrast, Clinton had been to Europe twice out of her first five trips, the first of which had been to Asia, much to the Europeans' disappointment. In the same days, the EU High Representative lady Catherine Ashton is traveling to Washington. Will this lead to a much needed upgrade in transatlantic relations?

To be fear, the conditions for an upgrade were initially there also at the beginning of Obama first term. Over the last 20 years, transatlantic relations have substantially changed: Europe is not anymore menaced from its Eastern border -- its eventual challenges to security come from the Southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea -- and traditional military hardware is not enough to successfully overcome such threats. In this new scenario, Europe is not anymore a territory to be protected, rather possibly the best partner to tackle the diffuse challenges to domestic security that our countries are facing today.

When Obama arrived at the U.S.' helm, the European Union was about to enact the Lisbon Treaty, prospecting an upgrade of the EU foreign policy, "one telephone number" as Henry Kissinger once commented. Obama does not have the ties to Europe that most of his predecessors had. His Hawaiian upbringing and his stint in Indonesia gave him a rather Pacific-oriented outlook and less Cold War-Old Europe psychological heritage. Thus to him, Europe could potentially be the partner the U.S. needed to face the new millennia's threats on an almost equal basis. That is, of course, if Europe was able to be up to the task.

At the beginning of the term, the State Department shipped one of its top officials, Assistant Secretary of State Phil Gordon, on a fact-finding mission to Europe. A number of changes were also introduced at the State to make less cumbersome the way it organizes its relations with the EU. In the European capitals, however, too many national diplomats advised Gordon to stick to traditional bilateral relations. The European diplomats' myopia only paired with the American inability to put the Lisbon changes in prospective. When a new administration takes over in the U.S., it takes roughly one year for it to be up and going; wasn't it a bit of an exaggeration to pretend that the brand new European diplomacy would magically work overnight?

A remarkable article in Vanity Fair describes Obama's pragmatism: He even bought sets of similar suits in order not to waste time deciding which one to wear. Having to deal with 27 Europeans was clearly too energy- and time-consuming for the new President. He did try at first, but then he essentially left the daunting task to others. (To be fair, Obama ended up concentrating more on domestic politics than on foreign affairs).

On their side, the Europeans did nothing to help. Though they really liked Obama, they blame it on the disinterest of the U.S., saying it was too focused on the emerging powers and Asia instead than on Europe. In reality, they managed to divide on almost anything that mattered to the U.S.: from Afghanistan to Libya, passing by Russia, to finally crush on climate change. Thus, still today, when Washington thinks about transatlantic relations in foreign policy, it does not necessarily think of EU-U.S. relations. A case in point is the Libya war -- generally considered as the most successful case in transatlantic cooperation during the Obama years clearly because of the lower costs than with U.S.' boots on the ground -- which is something of value in a period of economic crises.

Yet, a bite-and-go transatlantic relation is of little benefit to both sides. So far, the European Union has proved unable to speak with one voice in foreign policy thus making an upgrade in the relation impossible. As a CRS Report for Congress put it:

"If Europe is to maintain itself as a central global actor and a close U.S. partner over the longer term, it needs to increasingly speak and act as one in foreign policy and security issues; to commit to deeper initiatives for pooling defense resources in order to gain capabilities and efficiency; and to emphasize the further development of soft power strategies that project influence through the attractiveness of European political, cultural, and economic values."

Vice versa, if the U.S. wants to have a more valuable partner -- yet without having to spend endless time discussing with too many different voices -- it needs to start using its leverage and use the common EU phone number, rather than the 27 different ones.

John Kerry's trips have signaled his deep interest in transatlantic relations, consistent with his personal and political history. It remains to be seen whether he will mainly dial one phone number or several ones. And, most of all, we shall see what the answer will be on the other end of the line.