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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Europe, Russia, and the United States in the Age of Obama

His liberal opponents as well as the folks in the MSM have misconstrued the geopolitical position of the United States with regard to Europe under the Presidency of George Bush. Bush's opponents make the incorrect claim that as a result of his foreign policy choices we lost standing among our European partners. In fact, in reality what we saw was a reallignment of our alliances. No doubt that the Iraq War caused serious friction with much of Western Europe. Yet, what critics and opponents of George Bush fail to recognize is that while Western Europe thawed their alliance with the U.S. under Bush, our alliance with Eastern Europe saw a renaissance. Our alliance with countries like Poland, the Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics has never been stronger. In fact, the U.S. has never seen better relations with most of the former satellites of the Soviet Union than we have under George Bush.

If President Obama holds to this fallacious world view, he may commit some serious geopolitical blunders. For instance, Charles Kupchan, of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes there is a window of opportunity for improved relations between Europe, Russia and the United States. There is however an inherent fallacy in such a policy. Many of our new allies fear Russia and see that nation as a threat to their own safety. In fact, Georgia got a first hand look at that threat when Russia invaded that much smaller nation and did as it pleased. This tension appears to be irrelevant to Kupchan.

The different American and European reactions to the Georgia war reveal a deep divergence in perspective. The United States tended to defend the Georgian government and put most blame squarely on the shoulders of Russia and wanted to react to the war by taking concrete steps to punish Russia and break off contacts, particularly within the context of NATO. And the Europeans had a somewhat more balanced view about the causes of the war, and saw the Georgian government as being partly responsible for the conflict which erupted over South Ossetia. Europe was less willing than the United States to see the war as a cause for a serious degradation of relations with Russia, and the EU has taken the lead in restoring dialogue between the European Union and Russia, and in restarting contacts between NATO and Russia.

If the Obama administration were to take the Western European view of Russia, he would also be jeopardizing our new allies in Eastern Europe. It's also important to note that Europe is more "balanced" as Kupchan characterizes it because they rely on Russia for much of their own energy needs. Western Europe wants a conciliatory policy toward Russia for this reason and because the Europeans are generally weak. As such, in order for the U.S. to renew our old alliances with Western Europe, at least as it relates to Russia, it would mean jeopardizing the safety of our new allies in Eastern Europe.

This very important geopolitical reality is something you'll never hear from any Bush opponent because that would mean acknowledging a significantly more complicated geopolitical reality under George Bush than they would ever admit. It is however a reality.

Our relationship with Russia is also significantly more complicated than folks like Kupchan will admit either.

During the campaign, Obama's position was for principled support for a missile defense system, but a more relaxed time frame for development and deployment, based upon the fact that the testing by the Pentagon has not yet been completed, and the quality of the technology remains in question; that is to say it's not clear how effective the system would be.


The administration will back the system in principle. In the aftermath of 9/11, and in light of the continuing nuclear activities of Iran, it would be imprudent to suggest that some kind of missile defense system is unnecessary. But there will be a deliberation about when and how to deploy such a system, and that might involve moving at a slower timetable to ensure that the technology is ready, but also doing due diligence on the diplomatic front. Many felt that the Bush administration moved in a clumsy fashion and dealt in too bilateral of a way, that is to say it negotiated with Poland and with the Czech Republic, without consulting NATO and without doing enough to try to bring in the Russians. And you might recall that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice actually went to Moscow at one point and said, "Let's make this a system for all, let's secure Russian participation." So it may well be that a new dialogue is started with the NATO allies and including Russia to try to defang the political antagonism that the system has created. It may well be that the system can be deployed in a more favorable political atmosphere.

Russia is vociferously against the missile shield and anything that brings any of the former satellites into NATO because Russia is determined to intimidate its neighbors in a long term goal of exerting as much control over the area as possible. The reason that the missile system has created "political antagonism" as Kupchan describes it is because the missile shield is a direct threat to Russia's goals in the region. It's also why there is "political antagonism" with Russia when any of the former Soviet satellites have their names floated for entry into NATO.

Once again, there is a natural tension between renewing our alliance with Western Europe and continuing our new alliance with Eastern Europe. The Western Europeans have a natural and an economic motivation not to confront Russia whenever it is aggressive toward any of its neighbors. Yet, a lack of a missile shield (or even a slow down of finishing the system) and a lack of entry into NATO, is a direct threat to most of the former Soviet satellites. As such, once again, there is a natural tension between our new allies and the allies with which our relationship thawed under Bush.

Kupchan also places a fair amount of value on Obama's affinity toward confronting global warming and closing GITMO. While those two moves may in fact mean that the United States will poll better in some poll of Europeans, it is unclear what geopolitical advantage this will give the United States.

The geopolitical reality of the situation is this. Russia is a tyrannical regime with imperial aspirations. Those aspirations threaten the safety of all our allies in Eastern Europe. Our traditional allies in Western Europe want nothing more than to look the other way while this occurs. In Europe our alliances have shifted, and soon enough, we will need to decide whether we stand with our new allies or drift toward our old ones.

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