Obama's Return to 'Old Europe'

France's attitude toward U.S. policy on Middle East peace? "We totally agreed." How about Iran? "Totally aligned on this." Personal relations? "It is a pleasure to work with Barack Obama."

Thus said French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a joint news conference during President Obama's recent European drop-by. Remarkable by the standards of the often prickly French-U.S. relationship, such solidarity was even more striking coming from the combative Sarkozy, who does not sweet-talk peers in the world leadership club.

More often he lashes out at them, in impatience or from an internal rage that seeks any outlet he can find. Ask Germany's Angela Merkel. Or Sarkozy's own cabinet ministers. Monsieur le President has convinced them, and me, that he does not give a fig for convention or polite language. When Sarkozy says it, he means it, for better or worse, at least for that instant.

The transformation of U.S.-French relations -- begun in George W. Bush's last months and accelerated under Obama -- now underpins a larger challenge in the U.S.-European strategic partnership. The redefinition of what it means to be a U.S. ally two decades after the end of the Cold War figures prominently on Obama's task list.

The president has had relatively little time to think broadly about that question in his event-filled first five months in office. He has spent more energy managing U.S. adversaries or competitors such as Iran, Venezuela or Vladimir Putin's Russia than actively reshaping the system of alliance management that has been a U.S. global responsibility and prerogative since World War II.

But that network is in fact the immediate target of hostile forces such as North Korea, Iran and the Islamic extremists grouped around the banner of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Japan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Pakistan, Italy and other U.S. partners are much more exposed to the subversion, intimidation or direct attacks of these forces than is the U.S mainland.

Isolating these allies from U.S. protection, or turning them against Washington, is the key first step in the radicals' version of a reverse domino theory. That is why a sophisticated effort at rebuilding -- and not just repairing -- alliances that were thrown into turmoil over the past eight years is a vital, early task for Obama.

He will be aided in that by Sarkozy's pro-U.S. affinities, which helped bring France back into NATO's integrated military structure in April, as well as the launch this month by incoming Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, of Denmark, of work on a new strategic concept for the 28-nation alliance.

But changes that Obama has set in motion by reaching out to foes could create new problems for U.S. allies if Obama's shifts are not skillfully guided in the months immediately ahead.

Bush did not care much for traditional notions of alliance, preferring Donald Rumsfeld's "coalitions of the willing" and welcoming a "New Europe" of Central European ex-Warsaw Pact members and Baltic states as the center of NATO strategy -- even at the cost of alienating Russia.

Obama has gone in the other direction. He has been publicly and privately more enthusiastic about his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April -- calling it "terrific" -- than any of his contacts with European leaders. Obama has encouraged his administration to take seriously Medvedev's still vague ideas on a new European security architecture. And he has de-emphasized anti-missile deployments in "New Europe."

"If you look at his appointments and his trips, Obama is Old Europe all the way," a European ambassador says approvingly. "Change passes through relations with Moscow, not Warsaw or Kiev."

The direction of change strikes me as right, but it needs careful balance. There are reasons to doubt that the optimistic reading of Medvedev's intentions and powers can be sustained, and the strategic leadership that Obama intends to provide to the molten U.S.-European alliance is still not clear.

His quick trips to Buchenwald and Normandy did not hide that, thus far, Europe is more of a checklist, and a superb photo-op platform for U.S. media, than a strategic partner in confronting the new challenges presented by nuclear proliferation, international terrorism and climate change. Obama's appearances there lacked not only the drama but also the saliency of his Cairo speech.

But this son of Hawaii has before him a golden opportunity to shore up a global alliance system that has contributed to an unparalleled period of progress in human affairs. You are condemned to seize it, Mr. President.

Jim Hoagland