Burden-sharing in the Twenty-first Century: A European Opportunity

Posted in Europe , United States | 21-Sep-09 | Author: Jackson Janes| Source: AICGS

President Barack Obama speaks about the U.S. missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland, that had deeply angered Russia, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington.

A Security Debate for Europe
President Obama's decision to shift the missile defense system in Europe away from bases in Poland and the Czech Republic could serve as a wakeup call for Europe to get its defense act together - or will they fail once again?

The immediate reaction to the decision in Washington was predictable. Critics accused the president of caving in to the Russians. Nonsense, said Defense Secretary Gates, who had been an earlier supporter of the defense shield. The analysis of the Iranian missile threats now requires a different strategy, he argued. That debate will unfortunately be caught up in a lot of other political wrangling going on in Washington these days. However that unfolds in Washington over the coming months - and much will depend on Russia's response to this move - there ought to be an energized debate in Europe about its ability to produce a viable defense strategy against threats. The question is: who will lead that debate?

The initial reaction in Germany to Obama's decision was positive, with a great deal of reference to opportunities to deal with Russia on other fronts. Obama's team has downplayed that angle in anticipation of the criticisms they expected about giving in to Moscow. Responses in Warsaw and Prague were anything but enthusiastic, especially given the fact the leadership in both cities had gone a long way to get the defense system installed despite popular sentiment against it. But there was lots of indication that the White House was moving in a new direction with regard to missile defense, so it should not have been too surprising.

A More Capable Partner
At this point, there is an opportunity for the Europeans to explore more vigorously their capabilities in dealing with defense strategies, instead of relying primarily on U.S. resources. This is going to be difficult as we know given both the political and tactical asymmetries within the EU. Previous efforts in this direction have often been complicated by voices in NATO, as well as many in Washington, who were wary of any move to set up a European capability parallel to NATO. Hopefully we are beyond those rivalries today. The fact is that Obama's decision to implement policies and resources where they are most needed comes at a time when the U.S. needs a more capable partner in Europe to handle challenges there, be they in the Balkans or elsewhere in the European neighborhood. The justifiable concerns in Eastern Europe with regard to Russia's intentions and indeed actions such as in Georgia last year need to be addressed in close cooperation with the U.S. within the NATO framework. Yet if we can gain ground in dealing with Russia as far as strategic threats to Europe and Russia emanating from Iran - or for that matter anywhere else - and further proliferation of nuclear weapons, it would lead to possibilities which have been stymied heretofore by perceived conflicts over interests within Europe and across the Atlantic concerning the responses to Russia as well as the threats we share.

The recent letter from several Eastern European leaders to Washington in which they reminded Washington not to forget them in dealing with Russia was an example of these concerns. But the question is whether Europeans east and west can begin to focus in on the common ground they might share in polling their resources to deal with these concerns. In fact, Eastern European nations have increasingly been training their sites on Brussels for economic resources since joining the EU. Now the next step is to see whether they can move toward coordinating their defense policies.

Engaging Russia
Any progress in this direction will depend on both leadership and events, some of which will be unexpected. It is not clear in what direction Russia is headed with regard to both its policies in its neighborhood as well as toward Iran. There is plenty to criticize Moscow for on the domestic front as well as its foreign policy. The challenge for the Europeans remains: can there be a common foreign and security policy voice with staying power when it comes to engagement with Russia? The Russians may not believe that to be possible at this point.

Obama has put his bet down on both strategy and technology in dealing with the threats he sees to both the U.S. and its allies, not only in Europe but also in the Middle East. What can Europe put together to offer the same combination of resources on the continent as well as projecting power elsewhere? That has been a question at the heart of the debate over the new NATO strategy which will be forthcoming following the NATO summit last April.

Whatever the response from Europe, the U.S. is still going to be committed to providing some of the resources which Europe will need. But it will take political leadership to energize both the governments and the publics in Europe to achieve more than is on the table now.

Time to Rethink Capabilities
But who will lead such a discussion in Europe? Can it be the newly elected European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso? Or would it fall to NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen? More likely a candidate could be French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Germany seems less of a candidate, given the struggle it is having with the Afghanistan issue. That struggle is not only about the individual case but also about a larger question about Germany's role in the future of such challenges as are sure to come. Will different perceptions of national interests and national narratives prevent the next step in European-wide capacities when they are needed? Now is a chance for the Europeans to rethink their own capabilities. The question is: will they?