Obama in Europe : Opportunity for another “reset”

A son arrivée à la Maison blanche en janvier 2009, Barack Obama étaient revenu sur certaines décisions prises par son prédécesseur, George W. Bush. Outre la fin de la guerre en Irak, il avait revu le projet de bouclier antimissiles en Europe, ce qui avait inquiété les dirigeants des pays ex-communistes. A l’occasion de sa venue à Deauville pour le sommet du G8, le président américain a rencontré à Varsovie quelques responsables européens. Pour lever quelques malentendus et « relancer » les relations transatlantiques qui en avaient bien besoin, écrit Daniel P. Fata, ancien collaborateur de Donald Rumsfeld au secrétariat à la défense dans un commentaire pour le German Marshall Fund.

A few months ago, I was asked to brief my old boss, former Secretary of U.S. Defense Donald Rumsfeld, on developments in Europe since he left office in December 2006. While it is impossible to write succinctly about everything that has happened since he left office, with President Barack Obama in Europe this week and Defense Secretary Robert Gates preparing to leave the Pentagon at the end of June, it is only fitting to comment on just how much has changed in Afghanistan, with regard to missile defense, and overall between the United States and Europe during the past four-and-a-half years, both for the good and the bad.

When Gates took office in mid-December 2006, NATO had just assumed command for all the security responsibilities in Afghanistan. Since then, the multinational, NATO-led force has grown from 35,000 soldiers to more than 130,000 troops on the ground. The Afghans are contributing nearly 200,000 policemen and soldiers in defending their own country versus 50,000 or fewer at the time of the decision. The international effort involved in training the Afghan National Security Forces is impressive and includes senior leaders from the Polish and British militaries.

In January 2007, Gates approved the plan to pursue a Europe-based U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic as a means of defending Europe from a ballistic missile attack emanating from the Middle East. Within less than a month, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a vitriolic speech in Munich railing against the United States (and, to a degree, Europe) for all the grief, headaches, and mistreatment it caused Russia regarding the basing of troops in Europe, missile defenses, Kosovar independence, and the push for greater NATO ties with Georgia and Ukraine. This speech spooked many leaders and parliamentarians in Europe as to whether Russia would return to a belligerent, threatening stance toward Central and Eastern Europe. 

Unfortunately, some of the most important differences between the United States and Russia were never bridged, and have not been to this day. The effect this disagreement had on U.S. relations with Central and Eastern Europe was significant. Eventually, Poland and the Czech Republic agreed to the missile defense system because both nations shared the United States and NATO view that there was a growing proliferation threat. 

Perhaps Russia’s actions against Georgia in the summer of 2008 added urgency to the missile defense negotiation process and demonstrated the extent to which Central and Eastern Europe looks to and expects more from the United States to reinsure their security. Unfortunately, the timing could not have been worse. The Bush administration was winding down, the financial crisis had just started to unfold, and, within a few months, the transition from the Bush White House to the Obama White House would begin. 

To further confuse America’s Central and Eastern Europe allies, one of Obama’s first major foreign policy announcements was its “reset” of relations with Russia. A few months later, the Obama administration significantly restructured the previous U.S. missile defense plans, eliminating the need for ground-based interceptors in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic. 

So, within two-and-a-half years, Europe was doing more in Afghanistan and the United States was doing less in Europe. Both Europe and the United States were understandably focusing on domestic economic issues while contributing to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.  This also contributed to the impression that transatlantic engagement was off the priority agenda. This led to a sense of disenchantment, bewilderment, and, at times, discussion about reorientation of policies toward Russia or simply away from the United States.

Obama’s visit to Europe, and in particular Poland, comes at a critical time. Today, overall transatlantic relations are not bad, but there is a perception that they are seen as far less central to American foreign policy priorities. It is understandable to a degree : most of Europe is in NATO and the EU, NATO has declared that there is no territorial threat to the transatlantic area, and while some EU nations may be facing tough economic times, Europe is the world’s single largest trading bloc. That said, the United States and Europe recognize that both need each other in order to address today’s economic and security challenges, and one should not forget that the United States and Europe have a common security guarantee to defend one another.

Historically, how the U.S. engages and treats Poland has served as an indication for how the United States approaches all of Central and Eastern Europe, and, to a degree, its relationship with Russia. During the Obama’s visit, he will announce the U.S. Air Force will send to Poland on a rotational basis U.S. F16 fighter jets. This sends a strong signal to the Polish people and hopefully others in Europe that the United States does still take its security obligations in Europe seriously. This will likely ruffle Russia’s feathers, a point not lost on the Central Europeans. And, in many ways, the degree to which America is willing to irritate Russia as a means of demonstrating its commitment to Central and Eastern Europe, is quite welcome.

And so, as optically and military important as the stationing of fighters or missile defenses may be for Central and Eastern Europe, nothing shiny or metallic can take the place of real dialogue between leaders, parliamentarians, businessmen, students, and ordinary people. The fact that the German Marshall Fund has opened an office in Warsaw will help on these fronts. But Washington needs to better engage Europe. Europe needs to engage Washington as well. A lot of good work has been achieved during the past four-and-a-half years, but distance has also developed in the transatlantic relationship. The threats to our collective economic and national security are real. Let’s hope Obama’s trip to Europe is the resetting or rebooting of our broad and deep relationship with Europe.