Obama team also offers EU a chance for change

Posted in Europe , United States | 05-Feb-09 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

Vice President Joseph Biden, left, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, second from right, listening to President Barack Obama after a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon last month.

MUNICH: The Munich Security Conference is one of those rare annual events that bring together leading politicians and defense experts from all over the world. With some luck, the sessions in southern Germany can force new thinking.

Here, in 2003, Germany's then foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, told delegates - actually, primarily the U.S. visitors - that he was "not convinced" by U.S. evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime had amassed weapons of mass destruction, which was the U.S. argument for an invasion of Iraq.

In 2007, Vladimir Putin, who was Russian president at the time, fired a vitriolic attack against the United States. In an aggrieved speech, Putin warned of a new Cold War if his country was not taken seriously.

After the thrills and spills of such conferences, other years have seemed a bit flat. Last year, there was no controversy. The delegates had nothing new to say. The Bush administration was on the way out. The European Union, then, as now, had no constitution or new security doctrine. Yet daunting foreign policy problems had become worse: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, Iran, the future of NATO and nuclear disarmament.

Now comes the Obama team.

Not even three weeks into office, President Barack Obama is sending one of the highest-ranking delegations ever to Munich. For the first time, the U.S. group will be led by the vice president, Joseph Biden Jr., a veteran foreign affairs expert. The group will include the new head of the National Security Council, James Jones, who was U.S. and NATO commander in Europe; General David Petraeus, now in charge of Afghanistan, and Richard Holbrooke, who has already arranged 10 bilateral meetings during his stay in Munich before he takes off for Afghanistan and Pakistan as Obama's special representative there.

"This is a real signal: The Americans are coming to Munich to present a comprehensive overview of the entire spectrum of their security and defense policy," said Wolfgang Ischinger, the new director of the conference and a former German ambassador to the United States. "It cannot be underestimated what it means for Europe in general and Germany in particular that the U.S. is sending such a high-powered delegation to explain its policies."

There is already great excitement over what Biden, Jones and other U.S. officials will say and how President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and the other European leaders will respond. And even if none of the U.S. visitors can yet spell out in detail how they intend to open a dialogue with Iran or deal with Hamas in Gaza, Obama has made one hugely important decision that goes to the heart of the trans-Atlantic alliance: He will close the Guantánamo detention center.

"In one stroke, the Obama administration embarked on a new approach," Ischinger said. Everything that Guantánamo stood for - torture, military tribunals, renditions - tarnished America's reputation in upholding the rule of law and human rights and damaged the trans-Atlantic alliance.

"The decision over Guantánamo is exceptionally important," Ischinger added. "It is about re-establishing the fundaments of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It is about restoring the moral values of the Enlightenment shared by the Europeans and the U.S. The U.S. has created a playing field which the Europeans should be determined to join in order to deal with foreign policy issues."

But are the Europeans ready? Their start with the new administration has been shaky. EU foreign ministers could not agree over how to deal with the closing of the Guantánamo detention center, which they had demanded ever since it was opened seven years ago. Should they accept detainees that the U.S is not prepared to hold once they are released from the camp?

The German government's reaction was embarrassing. Merkel's conservative interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said Germany had no obligation to do the United States a favor. The security risks were too high. But Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat foreign minister, said Germany should accept some of the inmates. Other European capitals were also humming and hawing instead of having one, united response.

Guantánamo is only a symptom of a deeper, fundamental problem about Europe. The EU and its national governments almost always fail to come up with policies of their own and so, predictably, they react in different ways. With the Obama administration hitting the ground running, "the Europeans are going to be seriously challenged by the new team," said Gary Smith, director of the non-partisan American Academy in Berlin.

The election of Obama closes a chapter in U.S. security, political and defense strategy that made the country wildly unpopular nearly everywhere in the world. The new president wants to return to multilateralism.

The Bush administration eschewed multilateralism because it was scarred by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but also because it did not want to be bogged down in endless debates inside NATO over how to deal with the new threats. The Clinton administration ran into problems over multilateralism, refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change or the new International Criminal Court in The Hague. Only after endless discussions inside NATO and the United Nations over whether to bomb Serbia in order to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's Albanians did the administration bypass the UN Security Council in 1999 and give orders to NATO to start the bombing.

The Obama team is still thinking about what multilateralism means. "It is not just that the administration represents a break in generations or is willing to think out of the box," Smith said. "The box itself is being examined." Europeans should be enervated by such challenges. "We are talking about a new chapter, a new generation in the White House, a new style," Ischinger said.

So what, then, should the Europeans do? "Don't wait for the U.S. to tell us what to do," Ischinger said. "Come up with a comprehensive offer of cooperation."

Munich gives Europe a great chance to start putting that together if leaders have the political will to do so.