’A Very Good Week’ in Europe for President Obama

Europe expert Charles A. Kupchan says that President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe "went as well as could be expected" in light of some of the policy differences that became clear ahead of his departure.

April 06, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Charles A. Kupchan, CFR’s Europe expert, says that President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe "went as well as could be expected" in light of some of the policy differences that became clear ahead of his departure. He said Obama put particular emphasis on public diplomacy to win over the broad publics in Europe to the importance of a better relationship with the United States. And he says Obama avoided raising issues like Georgia with the Russians to pave the way to a better relationship in the future.

Barack Obama is winding up his first trip to Europe as president. How would you sum it all up? A success?

I would say it was a very good week for President Obama. The trip has gone about as well as could be expected in light of some of the discreet differences in policy perspectives that became clear in the weeks prior to his departure. The Obama administration over the course of the last couple of months since taking office downsized some of its expectations for the G-20 and the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] summits. It was guided by the judgment that it is better to get the best you can and preserve transatlantic solidarity rather than overreach and be told "no" from the Europeans and then risk the possibility of yet another round of transatlantic fracture of the sort we had during the Bush era.

"[T]his week, unlike other presidential summit trips, was as much about public diplomacy as about the concrete policy agenda."

Part of the reason that judgment was made was that this week, unlike other presidential summit trips, was as much about public diplomacy as about the concrete policy agenda. Therefore, at each stop Obama has gone out of his way to address publics. And there were discrete audiences in each stop. In the case of the G-20, he was trying to speak to the global community, to calm nerves, to get people to again have faith in the global economy so that they would begin spending and investing again. In Strasbourg-Kehl [the venues for the NATO meeting], it was the European public he was addressing, trying to convince skeptical European voters to stay the course in Afghanistan. And he reached out to the public in Russia explicitly in London when he met President Dmitry Medvedev, trying to calm anti-American sentiment in Russia and lay the political foundations for a meeting of the minds on several important issues ahead, such as missile defense, Afghanistan, and Iran.

And on the final two stops on the trip--the Czech Republic and Turkey--there were also very strong components of public diplomacy. In the case of Prague, it is a symbolic statement that the United States stands behind the European Union and its effort to become a more coherent world actor. And finally, in Turkey, he’ll be seeking to walk back the strong anti-American sentiment that remains over the rift over the Iraq war, thereby consolidating a key relationship that has been very troubled and also reaching out to the broader Muslim world, again seeking to improve the image of the United States, which has had a rough patch since 2001 in that part of the world.

U.S. officials had been downplaying the possibility of getting a significant increase in the number of NATO combat troops in Afghanistan. He did get a symbolic move of a few thousand troops to be there for the August presidential elections and some hundreds to help out in training of police. He described this in his own public statements as a significant achievement. Is he too positive?

Going into the trip, there was an effective agreement to "disagree agreeably" about issues such as stimulus vs. regulation at the G-20 and also "disagree agreeably" over whether the Europeans would send more combat troops to Afghanistan; and in the meantime to focus as much as possible on areas of agreement. I wouldn’t characterize the European contribution as only "symbolic," because you are talking about as many as five thousand additional troops. It’s true that the vast majority of those troops will not be engaged in intense combat.

Shortly before Obama outlined his views in a speech in Prague on ending the world of nuclear arms, North Korea launched the long-announced long-range ballistic missile. Obama took the occasion to condemn the launch, and to say this violated a UN Security Council mandate and the council should take action taken against North Korea. Did it hurt his message or help it?

In some ways it strengthens Obama’s hand, because one of his messages to the Europeans is, "Don’t live under the illusion that you have secured a permanent peace. There are still dangerous actors out there, such as al-Qaeda, such as North Korea, such as Iran." That buttresses his case that it is important for NATO to stay the course in Afghanistan; it buttresses his case as well that it would be premature to walk away from potential missile defense systems at a time when countries like Iran and North Korea are acquiring improved technology. But at the same time, the North Koreans aided the policy of reducing America’s and Russia’s nuclear arsenals by lending further legitimacy and public support for the idea of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. One refrain one often hears from Iran and developing countries in general is, "Why should we step away from potential nuclear programs when you--the United States, the Western allies, the Russians, and the Chinese--have thousands of nuclear weapons." Obama’s message is, "We shall do our part to move away from the dangers of the world that contains so many nuclear weapons."

In his speech in Prague, he said he would try to get the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Senate failed to do under President Clinton, and to seek sharp cuts in nuclear warheads through a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Russians. Will he have trouble getting the CTBT ratified?

It is clear that Obama wants to bring that treaty back to life. It is too soon to make any judgment on whether he will be able to get two-thirds of the Senate to ratify it. The last time around the Republicans took the House and Senate in the 1994 elections and that made it very difficult for President Clinton to conduct foreign policy when it involved congressional approval, particularly the ratification of treaties. That also explains, for example, why even though Clinton himself approved of the policies, the United States did not join the International Criminal Court or approve the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. In light of the fact that the Republican Party has moved to the right since the 1990s and remains quite skeptical of international institutions, and potentially of the CTBT, it will require the Obama administration to work the domestic front to get the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the treaty.

On the United States’ overall relationship with Europe, it clearly was on the ascendency since Bush’s second term, but the difference which you referred to was the public diplomacy--that Obama was going beyond the European elites to get broad press and public support for a better relationship with the United States. Why?

It is important to note, as you just did, that the transatlantic relationship rebounded significantly during Bush’s second term and that the rebound was the product of the mutual realization that Americans need Europeans as partners and vice versa. The rift that emerged over the Iraq war and other foreign policy issues was one that prompted Americans and Europeans alike to look into the abyss and imagine the world without the transatlantic alliance and neither liked what it saw. Things improved significantly after Bush was reelected, but there was a gap between elite attitudes, which were to put differences behind us and repair the relationship, and the public attitude, which remained quite skeptical of the Bush administration.

The North Koreans aided the policy of reducing America’s and Russia’s nuclear arsenals by lending further legitimacy and public support for the idea of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Now you have an American president who is wildly popular in Europe and European elites who want to do what they can to strengthen Obama’s hand, such as taking detainees from Guantanamo. Nevertheless, there remain many differences of opinion about many of the issues on the agenda, from how to deal with the global financial crisis and how urgent and how needed is more blood and treasure for the Afghan war. But again, the Obama administration’s strategy was, "We are in this for the long haul. Let’s privilege the deepening of our partnership with Europe over potential discrete policy disagreements so that in the long run the relationship is solid and ultimately we might get what we want down the road." For example, it is conceivable to me that some of the troops that go in for the purpose of preparing for the Afghan elections [will] stay. It is conceivable that some of the troops not technically engaged in combat operations might do so on a quiet basis. And so this seems as an investment for the long haul, particularly vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

In the dialogue with the Russians, Obama never mentioned Georgia or Ukraine, at least publicly. Do you think this was deliberate?

I do. It is indicative of the degree to which the American administration is attempting to put to the side those issues which Russia and the United States are very likely to disagree on for the foreseeable future. I would put at the top of that list the enlargement of NATO to Georgia and Ukraine, the status of Kosovo, and the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway regions of Georgia. By doing that, we are in effect saying, "We disagree, but we are putting these on ice for now." That allows the Russia-U.S relationship to focus on areas where there is significant common ground, such as arms control, both nuclear and conventional.

These areas also include missile defense, NATO access to Afghanistan, and problems with Iran. And then there is the bigger question of might it be possible of finding a way of bringing Russia more fully into the Euro-Atlantic community so that ultimately, the issue of NATO enlargement goes away because Russia feels it is a player rather than an object of the game. One way to do that is to strengthen the NATO-Russia Council, which is happening, and another is to pick up the invitation from Moscow to have a new debate over what Moscow is calling a new European security architecture. We don’t know what that means, but it could be an opening to a new and fresh approach to this problem so that NATO doesn’t find itself in a cul-de-sac when it comes to the question of enlargement to include Georgia and Ukraine.


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