Making Friends with Friends

Mitt Romney, Charles Krauthammer, and conservative pundits are plain wrong: Barack Obama hasn't lost Europe. That was his predecessor's doing.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

In recent weeks, some foreign-policy commentary — associated mainly with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s trip to Britain and Poland — has asserted that America’s ties with Europe have been undermined during the last four years by President Barack Obama and his administration. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer made a particularly absurd claim last week that the Obama administration had shifted its missile defense plans in Europe to "appease Russia" and surmised that Romney had made great strides in repairing this damaged realm of U.S. policy. This is part of a broader political assertion that the United States has turned its back on its allies in Europe — and it is wrong. The Obama administration has substantially rebuilt the broken transatlantic relationship it inherited from George W. Bush’s administration, and its Europe policies have been a success story for the United States.

There is no question the U.S.-Europe relationship is evolving, but to assume that changes and realignments are necessarily bad for America risks pining after a world that no longer exists and dangerously inhibits necessary initiatives to bolster this vital relationship. And, frankly, that Cold War world in which the United States and Europe were joined at the hip was 1) a lot more dangerous than it is now and 2) never really existed — as there were often major divides during the Cold War across the Atlantic. A commitment to the basic values of freedom and democracy remain solid across the Atlantic. These values were reaffirmed by Romney’s excellent speech in Warsaw, a speech that could have been given by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, either President Bush, or Obama. But confidence in values also means having confidence in negotiating change in ways that can enhance mutual interest. Four specific achievements illustrate the vital ways that the United States is reinvigorating the transatlantic relationship under the Obama administration.

First, the Obama team came to office after eight years of the most serious crisis between Washington and America’s key European allies since World War II. Disastrous strategic thinking and bad diplomacy from Washington during the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq placed Germany in open opposition to a U.S. national security initiative for the first time since World War II. George W. Bush’s administration was dismissive of legitimate concerns raised by close allies over Iraq — concerns that were subsequently proved right. Guantánamo Bay and the horrors of Abu Ghraib caused alarm across Europe over America’s abandonment of common values and international rules that had been the bedrock of the country’s rise to power in the 20th century. Worse, the Bush administration seemed dismissive — referring to America’s allies as a "toolbox" to "cherry-pick" from — not the best way to get support and burden-sharing. That America is liked again across Europe (a sentiment that even the casual traveler can sense) is no minor thing. Obama deserves credit for that. Even if the gloss has worn off somewhat since the president’s election, America is still vastly more popular in Europe than it was during the late Bush years, and if it is ever needed in a major crisis, this goodwill will be important.

Second, the Obama team has achieved strong consensus among NATO allies for a reinvigoration of collective defense via theater-based missile defense systems now being deployed in southeastern Europe. The original missile defense plan proffered by the Bush administration — an interceptor site in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic — was deeply flawed. It had dubious technological merit and left allies such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey exposed to emerging missile threats from Iran. It was the Bush team that abandoned these allies and neglected to think carefully about America’s comprehensive relationship with Europe in terms of collective defense commitments. The new European Phased Adaptive Approach system better aligns threats to capabilities and provides America’s allies with an additional piece of leverage in addressing Iran and its nuclear program. While critics are saying that the United States stiffed Eastern Europe, recently Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak made clear in a recent visit to Washington that there was strong consensus across NATO on the new plan. "No individual country can protect themselves from global threats," he said. "Global threats require global protection. The missile defense system is the answer." Lajcak added, "People have moved on.… We are in a different situation now. We are discussing a different project. I see no reason to revisit discussions from three years back."

What seems to upset some missile defense advocates the most is that Obama’s policy does more to advance U.S. and allied national security than his predecessor’s did. In so doing, the Obama administration provided the first serious bolstering of collective defense in NATO since the end of the Cold War — something that all of Washington’s allies have embraced and appreciate — and something critics of the Obama administration’s approach seem ironically intent on undermining. While Russia continues to raise technological concerns about later phased deployments of the European missile system, the Obama administration had held steadfast on this, while offering to find innovative ways to cooperate with Russia — a policy also pursued by the Bush administration.

Third, the United States and its European allies have maintained an effective common front toward ongoing challenges in the Arab world. First and foremost, NATO fought a successful war in Libya. Critics asserted that it showed weakness for America to "lead from behind" — but it was effective — and the administration deserves credit for staying steadfast in maintaining NATO consensus and avoiding a dangerous ground intervention. Meanwhile, the United States and Europe have agreed to the most stringent sanctions regime to date on Iran — a power of consensus the Bush administration was not able to achieve — and there are signs that this pressure on Tehran is working.

While Afghanistan has not been the success that advocates of the new surge policy in 2009 promised when selling it to Obama and the allies, NATO is on track toward a common goal of leaving on a timeline that forces Afghans to take responsibility for their own future while seeking to avoid a dangerous power vacuum. Meanwhile, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the significant diminishing of al Qaeda is something that has benefited all of the NATO allies. This is a far different approach to the years of neglect of Afghanistan and the dismissive conduct toward allies under the previous administration. It’s true that the Afghanistan and Libya wars did expose a deep structural imbalance of capabilities within NATO, but rather than berate Europe (a Bush spokesman once dismissed the Belgians and other allies as "chocolate-makers" during one such dispute), the Obama administration has launched a new "smart defense" initiative designed to better pool resources and encourage European capabilities be developed to complement American military power.

Fourth, and crucially, is the eurozone crisis, which is the most serious geostrategic challenge for the transatlantic relationship. Obama (who speaks regularly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel) and especially Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have each been forward leaning in urging Europe to take bold steps to address the high risk of contagion within the eurozone. Realistically, there are few direct policy levers Washington can pull relative to the eurozone crisis — though quietly urging Germany to move toward some degree of pro-growth stimulus appears to be taking root among key leaders in Berlin. The United States has served to use its own crisis experiences with banking to help show Europe the benefits of being proactive in addressing the crises that continue to threaten the continent’s financial stability. But the crucial thing that America has done right is to have worked for decades to foster and encourage European integration as the solution to historical problems in Europe.

If there is a serious criticism to be made about Obama’s approach to America’s European allies, it is that while he has taken the right steps, he has not yet launched the bold, visionary programs necessary to create a balanced transatlantic dynamic that would be — to borrow from his own campaign rhetoric — "built to last." Economically, we are at a moment where a Bretton Woods- and Marshall Plan-level of thinking and institution-building is needed. Yet, ironically, just as Greece was floundering this summer, the allies were focused on a NATO summit in Chicago, rather than establishing initiatives for the shared debt crisis.

On NATO, while the United States is withdrawing some troops from Europe, it could safely cut deployments in Europe even further and shift the burden of responsibility for security within and around the European area onto capable allies. The next major NATO summit, for example, could state an explicit goal of working within the organization to ensure that the allies have the capacity to fight both a Libya-style war and perform a Balkans-style peace operation without U.S. involvement.

Then again, one can understand why the administration might want to avoid too bold a vision, especially in an election year, given that even U.S. successes are being characterized by critics as failures. Indeed, the lack of Washington’s bipartisan goodwill toward U.S. efforts in Europe is the most significant new factor in the transatlantic relationship — but that is not Obama’s fault and, moreover, the fundamentals of the relationship are stronger than such narrow short-term interests.

Are there major shifts ongoing in between American and Europe? Of course there are — and this is a good thing. Not only has the Obama administration handled this shift well, but it has laid a solid foundation for making the U.S.-Europe relationship sustainable for decades to come. A restoration of confidence among allies in America’s leadership, a reinvigoration of collective defense in NATO, a successful war in Libya, a strong united approach to Iran, a rebalancing of the U.S. role on the continent that puts Europeans more in the lead, and a deep appreciation of common economic destinies are by definition a major success story.

Europe is, to be sure, in a major economic crisis, but it has the capacity (and hopefully the will) to handle it. Let’s remember that this is the outcome that the men who built this architecture in the first place sought: a Europe capable of meeting its own challenges without a permanent reliance on the United States. Critics of America’s approach to Europe, like Krauthammer and the Romney campaign, risk undermining important American gains that have been made in the last four years. Even more troubling is that they seem to have a misplaced nostalgia for something that has little basis in today’s geostrategic realities while offering no serious policy alternatives of their own. There is plenty to debate over America’s foreign policy agenda today — but on Europe, Obama has gotten it right, and that’s good for America.

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