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Commentary | 17 April 2013

The Euro-Atlantic Area in Obama’s Second Term: Risks and Opportunities

Image of Ulrich Weisser

Ulrich Weisser |Former Director of Plans and Policy and former Military Advisor to the German Minister of Defence

Asia-Pacific Region Foreign policy NATO Russia-West Relations Transatlantic relations United States Euro-Atlantic Security

* The ELN is very sad to announce that since this article was written, its author Vice Admiral Ulrich Weisser has sadly passed away. Everyone connected with the ELN is very sorry to hear this news and our thoughts and condolences are with his family and close friends.



Europe and the world wait expectantly to see how President Obama and his administration will tackle his second term in office. In that context, the most important question on all of our minds is whether the US will define different strategic priorities in this term than in the past and if it does so, what the consequences of such a change may be.


The US Pivot to Asia-Pacific

On 17 November 2011 President Obama in his speech in Canberra, Australia impressively explained why and how the US will reorient itself towards the Pacific. People with some historical perspective often argue that the US has always been an Atlantic and Pacific power at the same time and that the change of emphasis is therefore not really anything new. But this neglects the reality that the US has decided to pursue a fundamentally new and different course of action in which the Pacific dimension of US foreign policy will gain new weight.

The President has renewed or underlined the security commitments of the US to every single state in the Pacific, from Japan and South Korea to Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and even Malaysia. All these countries are able to shelter under the American umbrella and can take a much more relaxed view towards China and its rapidly growing military capabilities as a result.

The President’s new policy reflects the impact of long term developments in this part of the world and poses two fundamental questions for the US:

• Is the relationship with China bound for strategic rivalry as a result of rapidly growing Chinese military capabilities and a Chinese maritime expansionist policy?

• Can China and the US come to a basic understanding that it will in be in their mutual interest to complement each other in their efforts to maintain regional stability?

In other words: Will China and the US become competitive or complementary powers in the Pacific? In this context one should not underestimate the growing strategic rivalry between India and China too, because this development is likely to have some impact on US calculations.

Whatever the answers to these questions, the US has taken a greater burden of responsibility for security in the Pacific on to its shoulders and will face different challenges there that can only be met at the expense of other regions in the world. In this context the extent of the US commitment to Europe is coming to the fore in political debate in Washington, especially in the form of Congressional criticism of Europe’s perceived lack of seriousness when it comes to burden-sharing, an issue that may yet lead to dramatic consequences for Europe at a time of US defence budget cut-backs and the need to save money for projects with much higher priority.


Relations with Russia

Relations with Russia are also on an uncertain trajectory. The Republican dominated Congress in Washington seems to see US-Russia relations as less important than issues like North Korean nuclear proliferation. More broadly, relations with Russia are burdened by mistrust and substantial differences. The mismanagement of civil society by the Putin administration finds nothing but critics, of course, in the US Congress but there are also other issues on which they diverge, such as the antiballistic missile system, Syria, and how to manage the issue of human rights within Russia.

President Obama’s pursuit of the “reset” may be long and painful in this context. In the overall strategic picture the President also has to include the increasing ties between China and Russia in his thinking.
On the up-side, he should be able to rely on Russian support for the withdrawal of US-Forces from Afghanistan and there are other reasons as to why Obama should pursue improved relations with Russia. Russia is an indispensable power when it comes to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and the two countries should have much in common when it comes to the desire to significantly reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons on both sides. Russia is also central to decisions made by the UN-Security Council and to reaching cooperative solutions in Afghanistan and the wider region of the Middle East and central Asia. If US and Russian domestic politics leads the US to neglect Russia and the geostrategic situation and challenges of what is the biggest land power on earth, that would be a big mistake given the possible benefits of sustained cooperation.

Despite this, since President Putin’s reelection on 27 May 2012 the atmosphere between Moscow and Washington has continuously worsened. If Obama wants to try to get things back on track then the issue of “antiballistic missile defense” will be central. If the US-Congress continues its destructive attitude with regard to relations with Russia, President Obama may also be well advised to come up with a more innovative concept for further nuclear disarmament. This could involve use of Presidential Nuclear Initiatives that do not require formal treaties and solutions for nuclear weapons of all categories, for strategic and sub strategic nuclear weapons, independent of their location of deployment, that take the numbers below those of the present ceilings captured in the New START Treaty. With regard to the possible Iranian nuclear program Moscow will not be a driving force toward military intervention – and this could also help Obama because he is more than reluctant to opt for a military solution despite the constant pressure coming from Israel.

The Transatlantic Alliance
Given the big picture strategic context, it is important to return to some fundamentals. The future wellbeing and security of America and Europe will mainly, in my view, be determined by how well each side succeeds in giving the transatlantic partnership new content. If the US and Europe work together to meet new challenges this will benefit both. This is especially true at a time when much of Europe is suffering economic crisis and Washington is fixed on the crisis of American institutions, on the dramatic fiscal situation, and on its increasing orientation towards the Pacific. While the US pivot to the Pacific has time and again been accompanied by commitments, partly rhetorical, to maintain strong ties with Europe, question marks over the future of transatlantic relations remain.

Will the US turn permanently from Europe towards the Pacific? Has the US lost interest in Europe? Will the Europeans be left alone in future to handle challenges only with our own capabilities while slowly developing the coherent political capability to act strategically?

Despite its uncontested achievements, NATO has also been steadily losing significance and acceptance in recent years, not least in the eyes of the public. While the responsible political class in Washington knows we cannot afford to let this unique alliance among European and American powers expire – we have to make sure there is an alliance, with revised structures in place in time to meet the new challenges of a world in which the geopolitical balance has shifted. Today, NATO is still too much of an inward-looking Alliance that does not reflect the fundamentally changed global environment.


Prioritising a Cooperative Euro-Atlantic Area

Despite NATO’s frequent talk of change, not only it has not developed a political strategy for preserving its relevance in accordance with contemporary needs but at the same time it has not taken on the logic and central task of including Russia in this long-term effort. Fear of Russia will not be enough to hold NATO together in future. Although there are differences of opinion about particular actions taken by Russia or NATO itself in certain situations, there is today no potential for significant conflict with Russia, at least when compared with the period of the Cold War.

America, Europe, and Russia in the end belong together in today’s world. To what other pole could Russia orient itself culturally, politically, economically, and strategically? Progress can only happen, however, if Russia is willing to undergo significant political reforms and NATO is willing to rise to the challenge.

With regard to NATO, it is clear that it has to be prepared for the unexpected. It has to deal with new strategic risks like cyber war and militant terrorism. It has to be capable of dealing with changes in the balance of power. But above all it needs discussion and clarity on the following questions: how important will the US be for the security of Europe in future? What role of strategic substance will Europe will play in return, as America’s ally at a time of new strategic priorities for Washington? How will Europe, the US and NATO collectively relate to Russia?

At this point in time, the political debate in Europe is not addressing these questions but is almost totally obsessed with economic and monetary policy. This is superficially understandable, but people seem to have forgotten that the European Union was at its origin- a pact for peace and it will remain so. The security of Europe is therefore a fundamental element of the EU’s promise to ensure that the basic needs of its citizens are met. The EU will not find a stable equilibrium until it becomes not just a monetary and economic union, but also a political and security union.

For a long time now, two questions have remained unanswered on this aspect of the European debate. First, does it make sense, and is it responsible conduct in a world of scarce resources, for each and every European state to maintain the full independent spectrum of military capabilities on land- , sea-, and air? Second, is it possible for Europeans to deal collectively with military exigencies affecting them all and to create a system for the division of labor, so as not only to act more efficiently at lower cost, but also to foster European integration by means of a voluntary condition of mutual dependency? These questions must also be answered if the wider and big picture political and security challenges of the future are to be met.



Given the wider context, and the major challenges described, one can think about what the strategic priorities for President Obama`s second term foreign policy agenda will be. These are partly competitive and partly complementary to each other. Decisions may be difficult and the dilemmas real but despite the case for reinvigorating the transatlantic alliance and continued pursuit of the re-set with Russia, the President’s priorities are actually likely to be as follows:

• The stabilization of US institutions on which the state is based and the taking of effective measures to     overcome the fiscal emergency;

• Successful adaptation to the political and strategic trends in the Pacific region and within this, the pursuit of a constructive relationship with China and improved management of challenges like North Korea.

• The playing a constructive diplomatic role in the Middle East given the enormous potential for crisis and conflict in that part of the world and the special role of Israel and the ongoing tensions with its neighbors and regional rivals.

• Possibly the pursuit of a new and strong US-interest in Africa covering the full spectrum of political, economic and even strategic relations.

As a result it is likely that already significantly damaged American-Russian relations will reduce Russia’s weight and status on the US policy agenda. NATO too, may get decreasing attention and less material support while Europe has not yet looked capable of getting its own house in order or of changing the internal NATO dynamic. The reasons may be understandable but if this is the outcome, it will damage US, European and Russian interests and weaken the efforts of all three to meet the emerging challenges of the 21st century.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.