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Bringing in a Strong Team: Obama vs the EU

When the Lisbon treaty comes into force on December 1st, the European Union will have achieved two of its key goals of the last decade — improved coherance and a stronger common foreign policy. Among many other things, the Treaty brings major changes to two top posts in the EU, a permanent President of the European Council (rather than 6 month rotating among the heads of states/governments in the EU countries) and High Representative for foreign policy (merging the foreign policy mandate of the European Commission and the common foreign and security policy of the EU (the countries).

In each post is a chance for strong leadership to redefine the role of the European Union vis-a-vis the members states — particularly large EU countries like France, UK, Germany, Spain and Italy — and carve out a bigger common space in the realm of foreign and security policy.

This was reflected in the weeks leading up to the decision by the fact that some big hitters in European (and global) politics were lining up as candidate for the post. Most prominent was the candidacy of former UK PM Tony Blair, who with the support of the British government, sought the President post. Other major politicians rumored for the job included Dutch PM Jan Pieter Balkenende and Luxembourg PM Jean-Claude Juncker, along with Finnish PM Tarja Halonen.

On the foreign affairs post, prominent foreign ministers and prime ministers were on the nominations block as well, with Spanish FM Miguel Moratinos, British FM David Miliband, former Italian PM and FM Massimo D’Alema, former Austrian FM and ambassador Ursula Plassnik all mentioned as strong candidates.

As a result, it was to the distress of many pro-EU observers that the choices selected by the European nations last week — Belgium PM Herman Van Rompuy for EU Council President and EU Trade Commissioner Baroness Catherine Ashton (UK) — were both ‘dark horse’ consensus candidates with quite low global profiles, and in the latter case, almost no foreign or security policy experience (trade negotiations certainly count for something, but a far cry from FM, PM or ambassador experience).

The basic story is that on both fronts, the heads of France and Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, cut a deal to put forth a united front, and push a common candidate for each post. Chosen to “avoid overshadowing” the traditional leadership on EU and foreign policy issues from Paris and Berlin, Merkel and Sarkozy pushed a candidate would not challenge them. And once he knew that Tony Blair would not fly in the President post, the UK’s Gordon Brown agreed — taking political victory back home that the UK’s own Lady Ashton now sat in the foreign policy post. Of course, she would never shine brighter than Miliband, the Labour government reasoned.

Now, contrast this with the tactic used by US President Barack Obama as he pulled together his foreign, security and domestic policy team. Rather than installing low-profile, consensus choices that he could more easily dominate, he generally built a strong-willed and experienced team, who would challenge his thinking and already command a high degree of gravitas inside and outside.

Regardless of their political or ideological stripes, observers found it hard to challenge the appointment of Hillary Clinton to the State Department and re-appointment of Robert Gates to the Pentagon. Similarly, the appointments of high-profile diplomats Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, Scott Gration as special envoys, and the political strength of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano and Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel seem to draw from the same logic.

The Obama approach also has a clear political component — bringing potential rivals into the fold builds the brain power and credibility of the administration and also removes potential critics from the center and left.

When making the comparison between the Obama Administration and the European Council, of course, there are several important distinctions. Decisions by committee, particularly the type described here, tend to prefer easier, consensus nominees. Obama himself drove the train on his nominees and as a result could take more risks. In addition, the EU is essentially an ‘incrementalist’ organization, with a slowly growing (if not creeping) mandate, whereas a change in US administration is a deliberate chance to make large scale and dramatic adjustments in personnel and vision.

That all said, it is hard to see how Van Rompuy and Ashton will bring the kind of charisma and new vision that the Lisbon Treaty was intended to provide to the Union. Of course, it is easy to argue that the goal of the posts is to do neither thing, instead simply to raise the level of coherance by merging key functions of the EU. But if the EU is to play a larger role in the diplomatic and security realms, for example beyond the current development assistance and humanitarian aid focus of the former and illegal immigration focus of the latter, the strategy must change.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at