Monday, November 10, 2008

What 'Obama effect' for transatlantic relations?

by Tomas Valasek

Europe got the president it wanted on November 4th. Obama will have Europe's goodwill and with it, a window of opportunity to restore transatlantic co-operation on key security issues. The list of common challenges includes, but is not limited to, Afghanistan, Iran and Russia.

Whether Obama succeeds or not depends in part on how willing he will be to try out new approaches. Europe will expect the next president to change the substance of US foreign policy as much as its style. On some issues like Iran and Afghanistan, Obama plans changes; on other like Russia he offered few new ideas during the campaign. He will have to think creatively on all fronts.

Afghanistan will be on top of the US priorities for Europe. Obama will put more troops in the country and expect Europe to do the same. And even though all European governments are short on troops and money, many will respond in kind.

But while a 'surge' worked in Iraq, more troops will not automatically be the right approach to Afghanistan. Western soldiers act like a magnet for terrorists from across the region, mainly Pakistan. Obama will need a Pakistan strategy more than an Afghanistan surge. In fact, he should consider talking to some of the current enemies from among the Taliban in Afghanistan, to build local alliances against the most radical insurgents coming from Pakistan.

On Iran, Obama said he was willing to speak directly to the Tehran government. This would be a much welcome change. The EU has been talking to Iran since 2003 but senior EU diplomats involved in negotiations say the talks cannot succeed without the US joining in. They may not succeed anyway; Iran may be far too determined to acquire nuclear weapons. But even so, a US participation in the talks would help build transatlantic consensus on further steps like a tighter embargo.

It is important that Obama does not just talk to Iran without getting something back - he is the last card the West has to play. Talking to Ahmadinejad now could also strenghten him in presidential elections, which is not in the US or European interest. So Obama should show he is willing to talk, but only at the right moment and under the right conditions.

On Russia, Obama will have a delicate task on his hands. Moscow appears determined to divide the EU member-states. It also wants to drive a wedge between the more Moscow-friendly European capitals and the United States. Obama's victory does not appear to have changed Russian policy: on the day US election results were announced the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev gave a speech criticising US 'aggression' and 'unilateralism'.

Obama's immediate priority should be to help to strengthen the EU consensus on Russia, and to bring Europe's and America's policies closer to one another. This requires two things. First, Obama will need to convince Berlin, Paris, Rome and other capitals that Washington will not gratuitously provoke Moscow. So the US should stop pushing for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine and Georgia. Instead of MAP, which has become a red flag to not only Moscow but also to Berlin and Paris, NATO should use its special Ukraine and Georgia councils to expand security assistance to the two countries, and to give them a clear set of criteria for future membership.

At the same time, Obama needs to re-assure NATO allies on Russian borders that Washington would not abandon them in case of a Russian aggression. To that end, Obama should work with other allies to organise 'table top' military exercises assessing NATO's readiness to defend the Baltic states against a military attack.

Bosnia is on neither Obama's nor Europe's list of priorities but it should be. Years of 'hands-off' Western policy allowed nationalists to once again flourish there. The US and Europe must urgently re-engage. The office of high representative (HR, usually a senior European diplomat) will close soon, under Russian pressure. Instead, EU governments and the US should use the full power of traditional diplomatic tools like the prospect of EU membership, and the implied threat of military intervention, to keep nationalist politicians from tearing the country apart. Above all, Obama and the EU need to pay more attention to Bosnia; the country is vulnerable and could collapse.

There are other areas, where Europe and the US will need to re-think their policies. For example, Turkey's relations with the US and Europe are at their lowest point in decades. The ideas put forth above are therefore not meant to be read as an exhaustive list but rather as a sample.

President Obama will find that dealing with Europe is not easy. Eight years of the George Bush government left Europe distrustful of the US. But Obama is surrounded by an excellent team of advisors, who understand Europe and are well positioned to guide Obama through European sensitivities. Most importantly, candidate Obama has shown tremendous empathy and intellectual curiosity on the campaign trail. And he has a first-rate mind. He seems well aware of the need for course correction in places like Iran. This bodes well for the transatlantic relationship.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

1 comment:

Mathew Lowry said...

I recently
analysed and summarisied
several dozen posts by EU bloggers on the implications of Obama’s win. The above post was one of the many which covered foreign policy, although most had a specific regional focus (Central Europe, China ...).

There were diverging opinions between those who thought Obama was a Good Thing because he would bring EU-US relations back to 'normal' (i.e., pre-Bush, pre-neocon) days, and those who thought Obama was a Good Thing because he promised something quite new.

What do you think? Will we see classical Democrat multi-lateralism, or has the ground shifted so much that something else is on the cards? If so, what, and what role for Europe?