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November 10, 2008 |  4 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

Improving Transatlantic Relations Requires a Frank Dialogue

Nikolas Kirrill Gvosdev: Obama will move with regard to matters of detention and climate change in a direction, favoring European interests. However, bridging the transatlantic gap is not definite. With the US economy in danger there is little scope to make dramatic policy shifts. Europe must speak clearly, so that both partners can converge again.

Eventually, the euphoria over the election of Barack Obama will fade. The novelty will wear off-and it will be back to business as usual.

America's European partners and allies, therefore, need to be brutally honest with themselves-and with us-if the transatlantic relationship is to be reinvigorated.

Many Democrats have operated for the last eight years under the assumption that anti-Americanism largely been a product of the personalities of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Moreover, there is a strong sentiment that European "refusals" to go along with US initiatives were based not on policy differences but dislike for the outgoing administration. On a number of occasions, for instance, I have heard senior Democratic advisors talk about how a Democrat could have been much more successful in gaining European support for the Iraq war (or for postwar stabilization operations) by knowing how to "talk" across the Atlantic.

The correctness of this belief will soon be tested because an Obama administration is going to put a great deal of focus on winning the ground war in Afghanistan. So European leaders will have to make it clear whether their reluctance to provide additional combat forces stemmed from a dislike of the Bush team or is rooted in something deeper. Can Obama persuade when, say, Defense Secretary Bob Gates seemed unable to convince or to shame Europeans to do more?

European statesmen and pundits do the Atlantic alliance no service if they mischaracterize strategic differences with Washington as resulting from the personalities of a specific US administration. My opinion is that the reluctance of many European countries to widen the military dimension of the Afghan issue will continue after January 2009, no matter who sits in the White House. If that is a correct assessment of the situation, then it is important to convey that message clearly.

European leaders will also have to assess whether what will be on offer from the next White House comes closer to meeting their expectations. It is very true that an Obama administration will move on matters such as climate change or the International Criminal Court in a direction that many Europeans would find favorable. But will it be enough? With the US economy in the weakest position it has been since the early Reagan years, one cannot expect a president Obama to commit the United States to dramatic new environmental standards. Would Europeans, in the next round of climate change negotiations, be willing to accept standards that could pass the US Congress as the price for having an American signature on the agreement? Would they accept a US ratification of the ICC with significant reservations on Washington's part? While Obama would move much closer to European positions, it is not clear that his administration would completely bridge the transatlantic gap.

So Europeans are under an obligation to speak clearly about their intentions. Without a frank dialogue, the honeymoon may disappear far more quickly than expected.

Nikolas Gvosdev, the former editor of The National Interest, is a professor of national security studies at the US Naval War College. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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Marek  Swierczynski

November 11, 2008

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A change has come to the US and it will sooner or later also come to Europe, NATO, UN and other bodies, in which the transatlantic link is at stake. I do not think that Afghanistan is number one on Obama's priority list, but at least he declares he wants to win this war, which he says was a justified one. He knows that winning there on purely military means is probably impossible in his presidency, even if he stays there for 8 years. So, he has no option but to secure as much as possible with the military, "hount down and punish" the remnants of al-Qaeda (getting OBL would be an enormous boost of course) and hand the rest to whatever viable power emerges in Afghanistan. He must ask Europe for more troops and civilian assistance, that's clear, and Europe - given the Obama-mania that's present here - will probably offer more, under new conditions. NATO will be instrumental in coordinating these efforts, but it has to come to terms with the Afghan war itself. Putting the whole weight of the Alliance behind Afghanistan was a wrong decission and it has to be amended. Tony Blair often used a catch-phrase that "drugs sold on our streets come from Afghanistan and that's why we have to go there". Drugs keep being sold and they probably still come from where we went, to little or no avail. Obama, Europe and NATO should do whatever they can not get caught in a "cul de sac" of Afghanistan.
 
Nikolas Kirrill Gvosdev

November 12, 2008

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Thanks, Marek, for your comments.

I'm interested in getting your sense (or any other commentators', for that matter) about the probability that Europe will offer more military and/or civilian help in Afghanistan to Obama--and what "new conditions" you think might be required. And is this likely to be soon or further along in 2009?

 
Joerg  Wolf

November 13, 2008

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Nikolas, I think President Obama will get some additional support, but this might be rather symbolical.

At least Germany probably is not going to send combat troops to southern Afghanistan or lift many caveats for its troops in the North, since 2009 is an election year and the Afghanistan war is very unpopular.

On the civilian site, I expect some new commitments, but I am not sure how much will change on the ground. It's not a matter of money or skepticism towards US leadership, I believe. The will is there, but we lack personnel, expertise and experience to help Afghanistan's political and economic development. The situation at the Hindu Kush is much different from the Balkans, obviously. Consequently, it will take several decades.


I agree with your observation that "Many Democrats have operated for the last eight years under the assumption that anti-Americanism largely been a product of the personalities of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney."

I wonder how surprised, disappointed or even angry they will be when President Obama fails to rally the Europeans around the US led mission NATO mission in Afghanistan. I think the German refusal to send combat troops to southern Afghanistan is not entirely based on the Bush administration's foreign policies. Despite his enormous charisma and intellect, President Obama will not will not be able to convince Germans to agree to send their sons and daughters to a very dangerous mission far far away from home.

What do you expect to happen, if Obama does not get significant additional support for Afghanistan?
 
Donald  Stadler

November 13, 2008

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Joerg, I think it will be portrayed as a victory if this happens.

Germany and other allies will send modest troop contingents (25 or 50 more troops each), and perhaps a couple hundred civilian types. The US and possibly a few others will send rather more of both. Continental Europe will send enough to help Obama minimally save face but not enough to show convincing support, then everyone will pat each other on the back and go home. I doubt Brown will help much as he's trying to extricate the UK presense, not add. Hard to blame him too harshly, the UK is already doing WAY more than it's share, as is Canada.

Obama (and Democrats) will have learned a valuable lesson. Not that 'old hands' like Richard Holbroke (whom I hope is appointed Secretary of State) will have anything to learn. In fact I doubt Obama will be surprised. Yes he played up the idea that it was all due to Bush and the horrid neocons - but that was campaign rhetoric. I doubt he believed his own hot air.

Joe Biden will probably be devastated because he's not that sharp. I'm praying to God that Obama makes it through his first term (and his second term if it comes to that).

Relationships change incrementally over time. This will change NATO, but not that much in the short term. Not so you can detect. It will have a larger effect on US public opinion, but such effects take time to manifest themselves. It may not become obvious until the next crisis, just as changes in public opinion in Europe didn't become obvious until after 9-11.
 

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