by Robert E. Hunter
This Monday, President Barack Obama met for six hours with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The number one issue was what to do about Russian aggression against Ukraine. The result was an agreement between the American and German leaders.
At least that is what their press conference statements were designed to convey. Merkel reassured everyone that “we have been in very, very close contact with the United States of America and Europe on sanctions, on diplomatic initiatives….[T]hat’s, indeed, one of the most important messages we…need to send to Russia.” Obama emphasized that “Russian aggression has only reinforced the unity of the United States and Germany and our allies and partners around the world…[and] no matter what we decide [about supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine or other steps], the alliance between the United States and Europe will continue to stand.”
Although the two leaders seemed to be singing a duet, they were both whistling past the graveyard. In fact, Merkel made clear at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend (where I was present) that “I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily.” Meanwhile at Monday’s joint press conference with Merkel, Obama said that he asked his team to look at all options “and the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined.”
Often in relations between allies, such differences regarding tactics would be seen as just that—tactics. But in this case far more is at stake, not just in regard to Russia and Ukraine but also to the constantly evolving nature of US-European relations. Then there are the internal dynamics of European countries themselves to consider, particularly around issues of security and foreign policy. Unity has been scarce on all these fronts.
Ever since the end of the Cold War deprived the West of an enemy, as a Soviet Washington-watcher once said, some of the glue has softened in the Western alliance. That was perfectly natural, given that the Cold War was more an aberration than a historical rule. But with the crisis over Ukraine, the ability of the alliance to implement common policies, even where there is general agreement over objectives, is being called into question.
Challenging the Transatlantic Alliance
This is a particularly difficult moment. For one thing, Russian President Vladimir Putin would dearly like to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe (and between various European countries), first by incorporating the Crimean peninsula and now by sending “little green men” to seize significant areas of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, with impossible-to-deny Russian military support. In the words of Vice President Joseph Biden in his Munich speech: “You’ve seen the pictures, as they say.”
It’s impossible to know how far Putin is prepared to go. This Wednesday, the leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia are scheduled to meet in Minsk to see whether diplomacy can produce a cease-fire. The West is hoping that Putin will agree to honor the spirit (if not all the letters) of last September’s Minsk Protocol, which the Russian-backed Ukraine separatists began violating before the ink had hardly dried. And indeed, Putin may simply try to buy more time with another agreement he will not honor.
This puts the allies, and especially President Obama, in a difficult position. Unfortunatately their relationship with one another is potentially under increased strain because of the actions of a foreign leader over whom they have little if any direct influence. Merkel and France’s President Francois Hollande will propose—with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko anxiously at their elbows—but Putin will dispose. For the United States, billed as the world’s sole superpower, this is more than just uncomfortable.
The United States and its two key European allies—Germany (leading) and France (trailing)— disagree over whether to provide lethal arms to Ukraine unless Putin compromises in Minsk on Wednesday. This potentially major divergence has broader implications.
It’s not the first time in recent years that the United States has had intense disagreements with at least some of its major European allies. In 2003, Germany and France vigorously opposed the US-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the destructive consequences of which are still felt in a broad range of Western interests and by the people of several Middle East countries. Two years ago, the “Snowden Affair” added strains in US-German relations when leaks revealed that the US National Security Agency was even tapping Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls. This matter, which eroded the German government’s trust, has now receded into the background, but it still came up at the Markel-Obama press conference this week. As Obama acknowledged: “There’s no doubt that the Snowden revelations damaged impressions of Germans with respect to the U.S. government and our intelligence cooperation.”
The Stakes with Iran
Meanwhile, the risks of further strained US-German relations—along with US relations with some other European allies—have another Middle East dimension. For years, virtually all the European allies have fervently hoped that nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries—the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—will succeed and thus avoid what is popularly called a “train wreck.” Although the West agrees that Iran must not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons—Iran claims that it only wants to continue what it calls a peaceful nuclear program—the consequences of failed negotiations are unknowable.
They now face a formal deadline of June 30. In Munich, Secretary of State John Kerry said: “The only chance I can see of an extension at this point in time would be that you really have the outlines of the agreement, but if we’re not able to make the fundamental decisions that have to be made over the course of the next weeks, literally, I think it would be impossible to extend.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said more-or-less the same thing at Munich.
Both Kerry and Zarif had extensive talks “on the margins” of the Munich Conference, giving rise to hopes that this common perception of the process will lead to an ultimate agreement. In this case, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will make the key decision on the Iranian side. “I would go along with any agreement that could be made. Of course, if it is not a bad deal,” he said this past Sunday. This does not mean a deal is in the offing, even if the leaderships of Iran and the United States agree.
In the United States, the key to success may lie less with President Obama than with Congress, where major voices are still pressing for more sanctions on Iran. These voices have enlisted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without gaining the approval of the White House beforehand, to speak to a joint session of Congress on March 3. Even if Netanyahu and his US supporters are not able to ruin a deal, they could sow so much doubt in Iran about whether the next US president would continue to honor a deal—and, before that, whether Congress will limit the president’s ability to remove sanctions on Iran—that Khamenei and company will decide that it would, indeed, be a “bad deal.”
This demonstration that the US president may not be master in his own (foreign policy) house does not go down well in Europe, even in Germany, with its special ties to Israel. It is also of a piece with the squabble over whether to send lethal arms to the Ukrainian government. All this was very much on display in Munich. Although Obama had been clear in his skepticism about sending lethal arms to Ukraine—which put him in the same policy camp as Merkel—three Republican senators at the conference, as part of a larger congressional delegation, publicly criticized both the chancellor and Germany in general for not supporting their call for arms.
I can think of no other occasion when sitting members of Congress, while travelling abroad, have so directly taken on not just the leader of an allied nation on his or her home ground but also the US president. The informal rule against such behavior is designed in part to show the world that the United States has only one foreign policy leader at a time, whichever party holds the White House. By violating that rule, these senators only reinforced the current misgivings about the capacity of the Obama administration to be able to do what it believes is best for US (and allied) interests in the world and to make it stick, both against outside leaders who seek to interfere in US domestic politics (Netanyahu) and members of Congress who try to arrogate to themselves the role of commander-in-chief. Allies, especially the Germans, can see that this pressure is working, for the US president had seemed to shift his ground on the lethal-weapons-for-Ukraine issue by the time of his summit with Merkel.
The problem is compounded by what many Europeans see as a lack of solid foreign policy leadership by the Obama administration in more than one part of the world, but especially on the issue of Ukraine. NATO allies sent troops to Afghanistan during the last decade as part of an implicit bargain: the United States was to remain pinned to Europe, for the precise purpose of dealing with Russia if its behavior rendered that necessary. Putin’s behavior has since rendered that necessary, and many Europeans wonder what happened to the US part of the bargain. At the same time, however, Europeans have noted with approbation the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry in trying to forge a deal with Iran, and this was made clear at Munich.
Nevertheless, a notable absence in discussions, particularly on Ukraine and Russia, were two words that have been a staple of the Munich Security Conference over the last five decades and hence of the Western alliance: “American leadership.” If the Obama administration does not remedy this situation, the United States and its allies will eventually have to pay the price.