U.S. President Barack Obama’s plans to forge a foreign policy for a globalized 21st Century have collided in Ukraine with what Secretary of State John Kerry has called 19th-century behavior.
The “bitter divides of the Cold War have been replaced by unity, partnership and peace,” said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, outlining that 21st-century vision in a speech in Paris in 2010, a year after the administration sought to “reset” relations with Russia. “Russia is no longer our adversary, but often a partner.”
In the last month, Obama and Clinton’s vision has been disrupted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its troop buildup along the Ukrainian border. Europe’s new — or renewed — instability reveals longstanding weaknesses in the president’s vision of a partnership with Russia and global cooperation with the European Union and NATO democracies as far afield as Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, analysts, former government officials and diplomats say.
A Snapshot of Ukraine’s Past and Future
“The Obama vision for European security was hinged on a couple of factors, all of which are now out the window,” said Samuel Charap, a senior fellow at the Washington office of the Institute of International Security Studies, a London-based policy group.
Those included Europe’s stability and growing trade and financial relations with Russia. The administration’s idea was that “we would do a little bit of reassurance with our allies, enough to get them to focus on other operations so that the agenda for U.S.-Europe operations would be our common shared challenges,” Charap said.
Now, said Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group: “When members of NATO feel threatened, are they going to send more forces to the Gulf or are they going to try to husband some of those forces for reassuring the Baltics, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, who are on Ukraine’s borders?”
The Russian crisis will “be a drain” diplomatically, he said, “and it might be more of a drain over the next few weeks depending on what happens in Ukraine.”
Europe’s interest in diplomacy with the U.S. on curbing nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, ending the Syrian civil war, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and keeping Asia stable to protect the global economy will continue, Pavel said. “But I do think they’ll be distracted.”
Two European diplomats, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that while the Ukraine crisis has made trans-Atlantic political relations tighter, their countries’ attention is now closer to home, with other global issues a lesser priority for the time being.
The Europeans cautioned that it’s too soon to know the longer-term impact, and there’s concern in the Obama administration that retaking Crimea may have whetted rather than satisfied Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appetite.
In particular, said two U.S. officials involved in discussions, there are worries that Russia now may be seeking to manufacture reasons to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine or the ethnically mixed trans-Dniester region between Ukraine and Moldova.
Such a move would escalate the crisis, and Obama warned Russia yesterday that it would face consequences it it encroached further into eastern Ukraine.
“It is now up to Russia to act responsibly and show itself once again willing to abide by international rules and international norms,” Obama told a news conference at the end of a 53-nation nuclear-security summit in The Hague.
“As U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice put it, President Obama’s original effort to integrate Russia into a new international order ‘was predicated on an expectation that Russia would play by the rules of the road,’” wrote Tom Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, also a Washington policy research organization, in the March 25 web magazine “War on the Rocks.”
Wright concludes: “The great power comity of 1991 to 2008 was never going to be permanent.”
What Rice called Russia’s “very egregious departure” from international norms is only one challenge Obama now faces in Europe.
Another is his hope that the European democracies would begin to share more of the U.S.’s global burdens. In 2009, Obama told the United Nations that dealing with the world’s problems “cannot solely be America’s endeavor.”
The 2011 insurrection against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi provided an opportunity for the U.S. to lead its European allies “from behind,” as the approach was described at the time, although it had to provide the capacity to defend a wider no-fly zone than France or the U.K. could provide. Two years later, when France moved troops into Mali to fight Islamic militants, it required U.S. help for air transport and intelligence.
“There’s been a longstanding question about the degree to which Europe and the United States are going to be able to pursue global challenges and crises together, just by lack of capabilities,” said Julianne Smith, a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden who now directs the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for New American Security, a Washington policy group.
Questions about European military capability have deepened as Europe has whittled away at its defense spending, Smith said. Among the 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, only four devote the suggested 2 percent of gross domestic product to military spending: Estonia, Greece, the U.K. and the U.S.
Beyond Europe’s military capability, Obama’s vision of a U.S.-Europe partnership faced the challenge of fashioning a European consensus.
“The reality is you’re dealing with 28 foreign policies,” said Michael Geary, a Global Fellow with the Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group.
Among those 28 members, “it was never fully a consensus view that NATO should be focused on out-of-area operations,” said Charap. For Central-East European members particularly, “territorial defense was always the primary purpose of NATO,” while many in the U.S. and in Europe “considered that old-fashioned.”
“The U.S. wanted, and many of our Western European allies in this context wanted NATO to be a tool that could address global challenges, not one to be addressing what we then considered less than significant, or less than existential, or less than pressing security threats on the continent itself,” Charap said.
Now, Obama will have to persuade these countries, many of which have spent the last decade cultivating closer economic ties to Russia or rely on Russian energy exports, to unite behind further sanctions to punish Moscow should it encroach further into Ukraine or beyond. Europe imports about 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia through pipelines that cross Ukraine, and Russia is the world’s largest oil producer.
White House officials reject the suggestion that Russia’s actions will affect Europe’s capacity or ability to work with the U.S. militarily or diplomatically.
“What you’ve seen throughout this crisis and what you’ll continue to see is that that Russia is isolated, and the United States and Europe are in lock-step in supporting Ukraine and deepening Russia’s political and economic isolation,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
Nevertheless, said Geary: “One of the main problems of the trans-Atlantic relationship is that there’s the American vision of what you’d like, and then there’s the European reality.”
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