international analysis and commentary

Obama’s European tour: the political stimulus package


What US President Barack Obama delivered during his 7-day visit to Europe is a political stimulus package. Confronted with a sharp downturn in America’s image and influence in the world, he promptly and consistently injected fresh ideas into the international system and sowed new seeds, knowing that the harvest may come (if ever) only later on. Just over the past few days, in fact, he delivered them on the financial and economic crisis, NATO and Afghanistan, arms control and counter-proliferation, climate change, relations with Islam, and the Middle East. The stimulus package included also Obama himself, of course: his personality, approach, style and tone are already having a powerful impact on all the other players – in Europe and beyond.

The NATO summit in Strasbourg/Kehl was, arguably, the only occasion on which the issues on the table left him with limited scope for new approaches. In part, this was due to the fact that most decisions were taken well in advance: Croatia’s and Albania’s accession and France’s full re-entry into the integrated military structure of the Alliance were already finalised before April 2-3, 2009. And even Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s choice as new Secretary General was more the result of eleventh-hour negotiations than new public diplomacy – although Obama’s planned visit to Ankara shortly thereafter helped (along with some other last-minute concessions) bring Turkey in line eventually.

Danish candidates for the Secretary General post had been already rejected – for one reason or another – twice in the 1990s (first Uffe Ellemann-Jensen by the French, then Hans Haekkerup by the Americans). It would have been extremely touchy to do so a third time, especially with a serving Prime Minister who had massively engaged his country first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. Still, his poor handling of the 2006 cartoon crisis and ensuing bad reputation in the “Arab street” had turned the choice into a potential nightmare for the Alliance, as the alternative candidates were seen as either too anti-Russian (Radoslaw Sikorski and Alexandr Vondra)  or as too destabilising for the internal regional balance (Peter MacKay). In the end, reason prevailed, and a tested European PM will probably lend more influence and status to the job – both of which are badly needed.

In real life, turning 60 is hardly a cause for celebration, and NATO’s anniversary party was fairly low-key too. Had it not been for Obama’s appearance, there would have been little media attention and hype. The Alliance is under huge pressure in Afghanistan, where its credibility is now seen as being at stake. Yet most European allies cannot step up their military engagement in Central Asia as it is quite unpopular with public opinion at home: there will be a modest and short-lived ‘surge’ in conjunction with the presidential elections scheduled for next August, but not much more.

On the other hand, on the very eve of the NATO summit, President Obama announced that the US would significantly increase its military presence in the country. As a result, while the Alliance’s reputation is on the line, the imbalance on the ground is likely to grow between forces under US command and those under NATO. And one of the key problems of the whole operation – the disproportionate impact of American rules of engagement and policy priorities on the overall functioning of the mission – may get worse.

The good news, however, is that the “review of reviews” of policy in Afghanistan completed by the new US administration in late March displayed a sobering reassessment of goals and means – and one that could bring Americans much closer to Europeans. It remains to be seen whether this will translate into a more cooperative and effective management of the situation on the ground well beyond the strictly military dimension. For Europeans, this may well entail a more substantive contribution in terms of police training (so far the EUPOL mission has been understaffed, underfunded and underperforming) and broader peace-building efforts, especially if the US accepts to reconsider its controversial counter-narcotics approach.

Afghanistan has done little good for the Alliance, and a credible exit strategy coupled with a realistic reassessment of what ‘success’ will mean could help NATO move on from there. There is a lot of expectation for the fresh impetus that Ivo Daalder, the new US Ambassador, may bring to Brussels; but also some concern, as he is known as an advocate of a global role for the Alliance, which is not exactly in tune with mainstream European thinking at this stage. France, for one, has a rather ‘conservative’ view of NATO’s role, and is now fully back into the military fold. Germany shares a similar mindset. The Central Europeans’ hope that the Alliance will be used to draw more former Soviet Republics into the Western sphere of influence has been put on ice – at least for the foreseeable future – since the August 2008 war in Georgia. Further expansion to the Balkans is still blocked by the Greek-Macedonian dispute, while nobody expects the Serbs – ten years after the Kosovo war – to warm up to the Alliance.

So where next for NATO? It is still indispensable but also stuck in Central Asia and unable to move elsewhere. In this respect, the launch of a collective reflection on the new Strategic Concept – the current one dates back to early 1999 – is a double-edged sword: it can either help overcome existing differences or highlight them further. It will also be difficult to define new common missions and tasks as long as the Afghanistan problem is not over.

More generally, no single recent international crisis has been solved through military means, and NATO is a predominantly military bloc. With the economic crisis unfolding, Europeans will act even less decisively to improve their military spending, and are already overstretched in terms of overseas commitments. Cooperation with the EU on a more coordinated and complementary approach to crisis management, including a strong civilian component, is still hampered by the Turkey-Cyprus issue.

On top of that, transatlantic relations are now much less central to the management of international affairs, while global deals with emerging powers have to be cut across the entire policy board, with balanced concessions on finance, trade, and migration policy issues. A redistribution of power in international bodies is also long overdue, and likely to harm in particular the (largely over-represented) European side.

Last but not least, such reshaping of the world order will probably occur not in a secluded, Bretton Woods-type setting but in the heat of subsequent crises in which all sides will be under pressure. For Europe, this is going to become a decisive test of internal solidarity and external credibility and effectiveness; for Obama’s America, a challenge to its global leadership.

Last week’s summits on European soil certainly marked the end of the Bush era, but also the beginning of a period of uncertainty and change that affects also – perhaps inevitably – the Atlantic Alliance at 60.