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Transatlantic Allies Need to Overcome Grumbling

Author: James M. Goldgeier, Dean, School of International Service, American University
March 30, 2009

As President Barack Obama prepares to depart for his first international summits in Europe, his frustration with his counterparts only two months into his presidency is already quite vivid. In a reference to the European rejection of a greater economic stimulus to match U.S. efforts, the president at his March 24 press conference declared, "We don't want a situation in which some countries are making extraordinary efforts and other countries aren't, with the hope that somehow the countries that are making those important steps lift everybody up." The language echoed that used by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in Munich in February, when he warned that the conflict in Afghanistan signaled NATO is becoming a "two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not."

The messages from the new administration may strike a dissonant chord to some. Yet those who expected that the transatlantic sniping that occurred during the George W. Bush presidency would magically disappear with the election of Obama have not been paying attention to the underlying dynamics in U.S.-European relations over the past twenty years. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has turned more of its attention to other parts of the world, particularly Asia and the broader Middle East; meanwhile Europe has been intensely focused inward on extraordinarily challenging projects such as creating a common currency and extending the European Union across Central and Eastern Europe. Now, with an ongoing financial crisis tearing at the very fabric of what Europeans have created over the years and a difficult counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan leading to a more significant U.S. military involvement, the different attitudes, approaches, and interests across the Atlantic are again apparent.  Despite the differences, the most important message President Obama can deliver is that the United States does welcome a stronger Europe.

[W]ith an ongoing financial crisis tearing at the very fabric of what Europeans have created over the years and a difficult counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan leading to a more significant U.S. military involvement, the different attitudes, approaches, and interests across the Atlantic are again apparent.

When NATO leaders gather in Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germany to mark NATO's 60th anniversary, they will, as they do at any summit, celebrate what they have achieved. The meeting venues--along the Franco-German border--will remind everyone that the alliance has helped Europe overcome its violent history.  NATO members are expected to welcome Albania and Croatia into their ranks, the latest chapter in an enlargement process that while antagonizing the Russians has helped stabilize broad swaths of formerly-communist Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe.  France will formally rejoin NATO's integrated military command after a four-decade absence, helping to pave the way for stronger cooperation between NATO and the European Union.

While European allies will welcome a broad-based U.S. approach to Afghanistan that emphasizes not just military tools but economic and diplomatic efforts, the lack of burden sharing, evident in Secretary Gates' "two-tiered" remark, will hover in the background. President Obama has begun to reframe U.S. objectives for Afghanistan, focusing attention not on the ability of outsiders to create democracy but on eliminating al-Qaeda as a threat to U.S. and allied interests. His emphasis has inevitably led to the understanding that the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably linked. But European publics have been slow to accept the need to do more in the region, in large part because they have never overcome their sense that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were both part of a wrongheaded foreign policy by the George W. Bush administration. Coming on the heels of a G-20 meeting, whose mood will presumably be quite sober, the NATO summit must signal that allies can define a common purpose for the transatlantic partnership as they go forward to develop a new strategic concept.

As President Obama articulates a new vision for U.S. relations with Europe, he should build upon the stated goals for the continent of his three predecessors. Twenty years ago, George H.W. Bush argued that the United States sought to foster a Europe whole and free. Bill Clinton followed with a similar refrain of a Europe peaceful, undivided, and democratic, and George W. Bush spoke of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Those policies underlay the effort to bring Central and Eastern Europe into NATO, to end the war in Bosnia, and to protect the Kosovar Albanians (who just marked a one-year independence anniversary) from the government of Slobodan Milosevic. Given the fragility in Central and Eastern Europe exposed by the financial crisis, as well as the memory of the Russia-Georgia war and the disputes between Ukraine and Russia, a continued emphasis on seeking to promote a Europe whole, free, and at peace remains important. But it is insufficient. The United States also needs a strong Europe--one that is economically prosperous and militarily capable--to deal not just with the financial crisis, the war in Afghanistan, and the growing instability in Pakistan but also to manage a broad range of international issues, from the rise of Asia to climate change to counterproliferation. The United States needs to make clear that it wants Europe to emerge as a stronger international actor, able to provide both money and troops to support our common goals.

The United States needs to make clear that it wants Europe to emerge as a stronger international actor, able to provide both money and troops to support our common goals.

Finally, there is the problem that Russia poses to the American-European relationship. Illustrated by Vice President Joe Biden's comment about pushing the "reset button," the administration has emphasized its objective of engaging Russia and overcoming the severe deterioration in relations that occurred in the previous administration. A new relationship is something that many Europeans will welcome, given their proximity to Russia and their dependence on Russian energy supplies. But Eastern Europeans remain nervous in the aftermath of last summer's war in Georgia, and many of NATO's new members will want the alliance to reaffirm its collective defense obligations at the coming summit.

President Obama is to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 1, just before the G-20 and NATO summits. While he will presumably reemphasize that he wants to "reset" relations, he should also reaffirm America's commitment to democratic values.  Russian officials often sound as though their goal is to reset to the détente era of 1973. Then, as now, Russia wanted its growing international stature recognized and its sphere of influence accepted; the Kremlin sought to take advantage of a United States weakened by war and recession, and hopes to do the same today. Arms control was the centerpiece of the relationship then, and it is once again being pushed to the top of the agenda. As the administration goes forward, it should recall that the most important policy of the détente period was neither arms control nor economic cooperation, but the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act that led to the burst of freedom in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union the following decade.

Across Europe, President Obama retains rock star status, and this gives him tremendous advantages with European leaders who face challenging political situations at home, including UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But as he has learned, he cannot automatically use these advantages to gain more military assistance on Afghanistan or economic assistance to promote global recovery. And on both sides of the Atlantic, politicians and publics alike need to realize that the real work to solve common challenges will not occur this week, but will have to follow these summits in the months and years ahead.

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