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Global conversations

"Global conversations" Continued...

Europe

In Europe, Obama is dealing with allies rather than adversaries, but even here his administration's work does not get any easier. The willingness of Obama to talk with the Europeans far more than his predecessor is less important than what Obama intends to demand of NATO, and what those NATO members are capable of delivering.

A prime example is how Washington is requesting the Europeans to commit more NATO forces to the war in Afghanistan now that the United States feels ready to shift gears from Iraq. Despite their enthusiasm for Obama, the Europeans are not on the same page as the Americans on NATO, especially when it comes to Afghanistan. The U.S. argument for strengthening NATO's commitment to Afghanistan is that failure to do so would recreate the conditions necessary for al-Qaida to rebuild its ability to carry out transcontinental attacks against the West, putting both European and American cities at risk. But the Europeans (for the most part) view a long-term war effort in Afghanistan without a clear strategy or realistic objectives as a futile drain on resources. After all, the British-who currently have the largest European contingent in Afghanistan-remember well their own ugly and drawn-out efforts to pacify the region in three brutal wars in the 19th and early 20th centuries, each won by Afghan tribesmen.

This disagreement goes beyond the question of Afghanistan to a long-standing debate over NATO's intended security mission. NATO was formed during the Cold War as a U.S.-dominated security alliance designed to protect the European continent from internal and external Soviet aggression. Since the end of the Cold War, however, NATO's scope has widened, with only limited agreement among members over whether the alliance should even be dealing with the broader 21st century challenges of counterterrorism, cyber attacks, climate change, and energy security. More important, NATO has pushed up against Russia's borders with its expansion to the Baltics and talk of integrating Georgia and Ukraine, worrying some states that they may need to bear the burden of Washington's hardball tactics against the Russians. Germany, which is dependent on Russians for energy, has no interest in restarting another Cold War. The French have more room to maneuver than the Germans in dealing with a powerful player like Russia. But the French can only work effectively with the Russians as long as Paris avoids getting (permanently) on Moscow's bad side, something U.S.-dominated policy of trying to resurrect NATO as a major military force could bring about.

Before taking any further steps in Afghanistan, the Europeans, including those Central and Eastern Europeans who mostly take a hard-line stance against Moscow, first want to know how Obama intends to deal with the Russians. Even with the Poles going one way in trying to boost NATO security and the Germans going the other in trying to bargain with Russia, none of the European states can really move until U.S. policy toward Russia comes into focus. The last thing the Poles would want to do is to take an unflinching stance against Moscow only to have the United States cancel BMD plans, for example. Conversely, the United States is unable to formulate a firm policy on Afghanistan or Russia until it knows where the Europeans will end up standing on NATO, their commitment to Afghanistan and their relationship with Russia. Add to this classic chicken-and-egg dilemma a financial crisis that has left Europe much worse off than the United States, and the gap between U.S. and European interests starts to look as wide as the Atlantic itself.

Iran

Talking to Iran was a major theme of Obama's campaign, and the first big step in following through with this pledge was made March 5 when Clinton extended an invitation to Iran to participate in a multilateral conference on Afghanistan, thereby recognizing Iran's influential role in the region. There is also an expectation that after Iran gets through elections in June, the United States could move beyond the multilateral setting to engage the Iranians bilaterally.

The idea of the United States talking to Iran is not a new concept. In fact, the United States and Iran were talking a great deal behind the scenes in 2001 in the lead-up to the war in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban and in 2003 during the precursor to the war in Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. In both of these cases, core mutual interests brought the two rivals to the negotiating table. Iran, facing hostile Sunni powers to its west and east, had a golden opportunity to address its historical security dilemma in one fell swoop and then use the emerging political structures in Iraq and Afghanistan to spread Persian power in the wider region. The United States, knocked off balance by 9/11, needed Iranian cooperation to facilitate the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions to uproot al-Qaida and intimidate al-Qaida state-sponsors into working with Washington.

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