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Kupchan: NATO Summit Shows Growing Difficulties in Reaching Solidarity in Western Alliance

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow for Europe Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 7, 2008

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Charles A. Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, says the just-concluded summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Bucharest illustrates that it will become increasingly difficult for the alliance to reach agreements on issues. During the summit, NATO members agreed on some issues like missile defense, but refused to support President Bush on starting the membership process for Georgia and Ukraine. “We’re all going to all have to get used to a NATO that’s going to be more unwieldy,” he says. ”It’s going to take more to reach a consensus than in the past.” He says Russia is now waiting for the next U.S. president and is content to let issues remain unresolved.

The NATO nations had a summit meeting late last week in Bucharest which included as a guest, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then President Bush went on to Sochi in Russia to have a private meeting with Putin where he met also the new Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. How would you sum up the week for Bush, for the Americans, for NATO, for the Russians?

It’s very difficult to take away a single message from the events in Bucharest and in Sochi. It was a very topsy-turvy summit and a very ambiguous Bush-Putin meeting. On the one hand, NATO succeeded in getting enough reinforcement troops for Afghanistan and the coalition there looks stable for now. The Canadians had threatened to withdraw if they did not get roughly one thousand reinforcements to fight alongside them in the south. Because of the troops that the French have committed to send to Afghanistan, enough Americans will be able to transfer to the south to keep the Canadians engaged there and all will be well, for at least a while.

What about the disputed missile defense for Europe?

On missile defense, Bush was able to get an endorsement from his European allies for a system. As a result, negotiations are moving forward with the Czech Republic and with Poland to move ahead to deployment.

And on the question of enlarging the alliance to include Georgia and Ukraine, which was hotly opposed by Russia?

On the other side of the ledger, NATO decided not to extend what’s called the Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia, which is a first step toward formal membership. President Bush expended a lot of political capital trying to sell this issue. President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia was in Washington a few weeks ago. Bush went to Ukraine on the way to Bucharest, all to prepare the way for a road map to membership for Ukraine and Georgia. France, Germany, Italy, and a handful of other countries vetoed any move. It’s quite unusual. I can’t remember any time when the United States came in with such a clear position on a major issue and was so resoundingly rebuffed.

Was this because there wasn’t an advance discussion with the allies on this?

It’s a combination of process and substance. On process, the Bush administration felt that it could cajole its European allies into acquiescence. That’s in part why there was a major public relations campaign over the last month on this issue. But at the end of the day, the Europeans resented Bush’s approach. In his initial speech in Bucharest, Bush made the case for membership for Ukraine and Georgia but he ended up alienating his allies. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, for instance, thought it was inappropriate for the president to get out ahead and pushing the issue before a consensus has been reached.

We’re all going to all have to get used to a NATO that’s going to be more unwieldy. It’s going to take more to reach a consensus than in the past.

There was also substantive disagreement. It’s clear to all that Russia is back. And for the Europeans who live next door to Russia, nations that are highly dependent upon imports of Russian oil and gas, now is not seen as a good time to give Russia a major rebuke by beginning the process of extending NATO to former Soviet republics to Russia’s south.

And I also think there is a pretty strong case on the merits against such a move. Neither Ukraine nor Georgia has a stable democracy. Only 25 percent of the Ukrainian public favors NATO membership. Georgia has two breakaway regions. For the Europeans these are legitimate reasons that these countries aren’t ready.

Why do you think Bush got so enamored of admitting Georgia and Ukraine?

It’s a combination of different things. One is that the Bush presidency has been defined by the so-called Freedom Agenda. Every time Bush has gone to Europe, he tends to stop in a former country that used to be part of the Eastern bloc. And as a result, he wants to continue to advance the process of attaching these new democracies to NATO. And also, particularly in the case of Georgia, there was a sense of obligation stemming from Georgia’s support for the war in Iraq, the fact that Georgians sent troops to Iraq. As we have seen in the past, President Bush rewards loyalty. He was very intent on trying to reward Saakashvili for backing the United States on the war.

I was struck by Putin’s behavior. Putin on the record has been pretty tough on these issues. He seemed to have softened his approach in his press conference in Bucharest. And after the talks in Sochi there was a great emphasis on continuing better relations between Moscow and Washington. What do you think is going on here?

Part of Putin’s behavior stems from the fact that he’s at the end of his presidency; as a result, he felt less need to embrace his blustery rhetoric of the last few years. And I do think that there is a personal friendship between Putin and Bush; in the absence of that friendship, the tension stemming from substantive differences over policy might have been more manifested over the weekend. If you actually look at the issues, the United States and Russia are miles apart—on questions of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, and missile defense. But Putin seems content to note those differences while maintaining the atmosphere of camaraderie with Bush. And that’s in part because of the affinity that’s been built between them.

When there’s a new president in the White House next year, that president is going to have an interesting time figuring out how to deal with Russia, right?

That’s right. The continuation of the trajectory of the last few years is that Russia continues its more muscular approach in foreign policy, and there is no sign whatsoever that the oil price is going to decline. As a result Russia will remain flush economically. And my guess is Medvedev will help Putin continue to amass power in the institutions of the state and the state-run companies. Future relations really do depend on who wins in the November election. [Sen.] John McCain [R-AZ] is someone who takes an even harder line on Russia than does the Bush administration.

I didn’t realize that.

Despite the rhetoric, the Bush administration has bent over backward to avoid a major brawl with Russia. It’s worth noting that it’s been quite awhile since any major American official has read the riot act to the Russians. Bush has gone out of his way to tone things down.

Enlarge on the views of the candidates.

Senator McCain is someone who is much harder on the Russians. And one would therefore expect that if he wins, perhaps even a bumpier relationship than over the last seven years.

NATO decided not to extend what’s called the Membership Action Plan to Ukraine and Georgia… I can’t remember any time when the United States came in with such a clear position on a major issue and was so resoundingly rebuffed.

On the Democratic side, it’s to some extent an open book. The Democrats historically have been more concerned than the Republicans about human rights, about issues of democratic freedom, and one could surmise therefore that they might distance the United States from Russia. But I actually think the Democrats will be guided by pragmatism more than ideology. And there will be an effort to strike some kind of more constructive relationship with the Russians whether it’s Senator Hillary Clinton [D-NY] or Senator Barack Obama [D-IL] who is in the White House.

I was astounded that Bush and Putin had met twenty-seven times.

It’s a sign of the degree to which Russia is in fact a player again. If you were to list the major issues that the United States confronts today, whether it’s the nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran, the Middle East peace process, the war in Afghanistan, missile defense, fighting terrorism, counterproliferation, Kosovo, the Russians are major actors in all of them. That’s one of the reasons that at the end of the day, Bush has found it necessary to meet with Putin on a regular basis.

When the G8 meeting is held this summer in Japan, the new Russian president will be there. Do you expect he’ll be very low key, letting Putin run things?  

That is a question nobody has the answer to. My guess is that there will be more change than many people think. There’s a conventional wisdom that Putin will still be in control; that he’ll just be in a different seat. I do think that when they have a new president, when the president brings in a new set of advisors, there will be of necessity a process of adjusting to a new balance of power among different players. I also think that the Russians are to some extent in a holding pattern right now. I saw the meeting at Sochi as a placeholder in that the atmosphere was good, but nothing major came out of the meeting. And one would have been naÔve to expect a meeting of the minds on very divisive issues such as Kosovo or NATO enlargement. But it would not have been unreasonable to expect the finalization of a deal on civilian nuclear cooperation or nuclear arms control. The fact that nothing concrete came out of the meeting suggests that the Russians, like many others, are waiting for January 2009 to get on with the policy agenda.

There isn’t a lot that can be done in the balance of the Bush administration especially because it will be preoccupied with Iraq. And even on some of the issues at play in U.S.-Russian relations like missile defense, where there appears to be some unilateral movement forward by NATO,  it’s also possible, should the Democrats win, there may be changes to the missile defense program, either in terms of scope or the in terms of pace. Other countries realize that and are making their policies accordingly.

Is NATO in a sense waiting for the next president also?

Yes, I do sense that the NATO allies saw this as Bush’s last summit and therefore were willing to keep kicking the can down the road. But beneath the surface, this summit was quite striking in the degree to which it demonstrated major differences of opinion [between] the United States and its key European allies. I don’t think this is a passing phenomenon or is a product of resentment toward Bush. On the contrary, Bush has done a good job of repairing his relations with major European players, including the French and the Germans. But we’re certainly living in a world now where there isn’t solidarity. The West doesn’t enjoy the solidarity that it used to. The assessments of the nature of the threat in Afghanistan are not uniform. And we’re all going to all have to get used to a NATO that’s going to be more unwieldy. It’s going to take more to reach a consensus than in the past.

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