22/01/2013 11:27 GMT | Updated 24/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Obama and the World, Part Two

In his inauguration speech, Obama told the American people that ten years of war were coming to an end, with the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. He signalled that he now wanted to concentrate on domestic priorities.

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union deterred each other from nuclear attack by something called the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. The idea was that neither side could eliminate the other's nuclear arsenal in a pre-emptive first strike and would be destroyed by the retaliation that followed.

Decades later, people forget how international relations were utterly dominated by the competition between America and the Soviet Union. This was the glue that bound the transatlantic community, expressed above all through the military alliance, NATO, of which the US, Canada, Britain, France and a range of continental western European powers were member. Though Britain and France were nuclear weapon powers, our 'deterrents' were tiny compared with the American nuclear arsenal, under whose umbrella everyone in NATO took shelter.

The Cold War produced one of the glory periods of the UK/US 'special relationship' under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Yet, there were constant tensions between the two sides of the Atlantic. From the start, France played the awkward squad inside NATO, as we have done inside the EU. Some of us in the Foreign Office tastelessly characterised the US/European relationship as mutually assured schizophrenia. The condition manifested itself in the following way. The Americans constantly cajoled the Europeans in NATO to take on more of the burden of their own defence. One of the ways in which the US hoped to achieve this was with efficiencies of scale through European integration. Thus, Henry Kissinger's notorious and probably apocryphal yearning, when he was US Secretary of State some 40 years ago, for one telephone number to call Europe in an emergency.

But, the funny thing was that American schizophrenia kicked in immediately the Europeans, including especially the Brits, started trying to do exactly what the Americans said they wanted. Britain, faithful wartime ally and American aircraft carrier, alarmed Washington by joining the then European Community in 1973. This coincided with the US declaring the Year of Europe in a vain initiative to refocus the transatlantic relationship in ways more favourable to the American interest. The US assumed, and de Gaulle of France feared, that the UK would be their Trojan Horse in Europe. But, by the end of the year, Kissinger was in London to warn that, while the US supported greater European integration and Britain's place within it, this should not lead to European faits accomplis that shut out the US. In other words, get your act together, O Europeans, but on American terms.

The next 25 years were punctuated with episodes of this kind. While the Americans constantly exhorted greater European integration, they would erupt anxiously if we Brits showed the slightest sign of integrating with our European partners in ways which might exclude them, especially where defence was concerned. This anxiety about European 'caucusing' persisted well into George W. Bush's administration.

But, so it seems, President Obama is far more relaxed about what the Europeans get up to without the US. He was happy to see France and Britain take the lead in Libya. So far, he has not appeared to bestir himself much over Mali, where France is in the lead, with Britain taking for the time being a supporting role. It is not that the president has lost all interest in Europe, though there is certainly a rebalancing of American interests towards Asia. His recent intervention with Cameron shows that it is still a major American interest for the EU to succeed with Britain at its heart.

There is rebalancing of another kind. In his inauguration speech, Obama told the American people that ten years of war were coming to an end, with the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. He signalled that he now wanted to concentrate on domestic priorities. Save at the level of high rhetoric there was little about America's global role. Cue alarm bells in Europe and British newspapers telling him that he must not turn away from global leadership. Here on vivid display was Europe's own decades-old schizophrenia, complaining when the US acts like an overbearing hegemon (a word much favoured by the French), but complaining when the US fails to lead in Syria or the Sahel region of north Africa.

Yet, after 12 years of ill-considered war, costing billions and thousands of American lives, where political goals have not been achieved, Obama has every right to go canny, to prefer diplomacy, drones, special ops and the dark arts of intelligence to the poor, bloody infantry. If his nominations for secretary of state and secretary for defence, John Kerry and Chuch Hagel, are confirmed that is precisely the kind of team he will have around him.

History has buried mutually assured destruction. Let it now bury mutually assured schizophrenia.