To Lead or Not to Lead: That is the (Only) Question for Obama in Warsaw

by Robert E. Hunter

NATO’s 28 heads of state and government meet in Warsaw this Friday and Saturday in what has become a biannual event, whether or not the times demand it. Until Britain on June 23 voted to leave the European Union—the so-called Brexit—the NATO summit would have been pretty routine. It would have been limited to building on past decisions, though some with major consequences for European security, but it wouldn’t have set out in new directions. But now the summit will of necessity be anything but routine—or it will fail the test of history.

The agenda was already packed with further efforts to bolster the alliance’s response to aggressive actions by the Russian Federation during the last two years, beginning with the seizure of Crimea and promotion of continuing conflict and instability in other parts of Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has laid out some of the steps in this area to be taken at Warsaw.

At the same time, many NATO allies are less worried about what Russia will do than about other challenges, which for them are more imminent. Notable are threats emanating from North Africa and the Levant, which have produced Islamist terrorism in Europe and a flood of refugees that, among other things, have helped produce the most critical challenge to the European Union in recent memory. Thus at Warsaw, the alliance will endorse a concept designed to create alliance capabilities on a “360-degree” basis. Yet even if fully implemented, which is doubtful, this initiative will have little or no impact on the critical, internal dimensions of these imported threats to Europe, where NATO is ill-equipped to be of use.

Enlarging Warsaw’s Focus

These issues formed the core of NATO’s Warsaw agenda before Britain decided to leave the EU. But after the Brexit vote, the summit agenda needs to go much further. Indeed it should be heavily remade..

Rarely if ever can one separate out various elements of a nation’s engagement in the outside world, and there are naturally worries that Britain will not play as much of a role in European security (as well as elsewhere) as before. Nor is there confidence that it will continue to play its role in the triangular interplay with Germany and France that for decades has largely determined so much of European politics and economics.

Also at issue is whether Britain will continue applying the resources and sense of purpose and engagement in foreign policy and defense that has kept it in the ranks of major powers. The United States, in particular, will wonder whether it will lose the European partner to which it has most looked for support, particularly military, beyond Europe; and whether, on European matters, it should look more to Germany and/or France rather than to the UK for a “special relationship.”

“Going much further” at the Warsaw summit must begin with an understanding in Washington that, even if they do not say so openly, most Europeans are once again looking to the United States for direct engagement in Europe’s future and especially American leadership, which has been in such short supply in Europe during most of the post-Cold War era. This is a tall order for President Obama—who alone can command the high ground at Warsaw.

This requirement comes against the background of widespread European doubts that the United States cares very much about Europe’s problems, as Washington shifts its attention elsewhere. From this European perspective, the rot began to set in when the US (with Britain) led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the aftereffects of which continue presenting so many problems 13 years later. Ripping apart Iraqi society, among other tragedies, has led to the massive dislocation of people in Iraq and Syria and a flood of refugees in Europe not seen since the end of World War Two.

Notably, the last two US administrations have not inspired confidence among European allies that they have known what they are doing in the Middle East—save for President Obama’s masterstroke in defying powerful domestic political lobbies to negotiate with Iran the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which has virtually ruled out an Iranian nuclear bomb.

Further, the Obama administration has been almost indifferent to Europe’s massive refugee problem, in major part because of the struggle in US politics over immigration from Latin America and the hyper-inflated fear than any immigrant from the Middle East is a possible terrorist. Remarkably, our “nation of immigrants” has snuffed out the “lamp beside the golden door” that Emma Lazarus celebrated, at least as it beckoned to Syrian refugees and some other migrants from “troubled” areas.

Obama needs at long last to show genuine US sensitivity to the European refugee crisis, in deeds more than words. He should buck American domestic politics and agree that the US will take tens of thousands of refugees. Imaginatively, he can also help Germany, the most affected ally, by opening up the massive US military bases that still remain on German soil to serve at least as temporary shelter, financed by the United States, and urge Congress not to balk even at that.

Striking a Balance in Dealing with Russia

Even more important for Obama, while in Warsaw, is to introduce a sense of balance into the West’s responses to Russian misbehavior. The United States has responded to the security fears of some of the Central Europeans primarily in military terms. But Europeans with any memory of recent history will also recall that, since the latter part of the Bill Clinton administration, the United States has departed from the grand strategy aspiration presented by President George H.W. Bush, to try creating a “Europe whole and free and at peace.”

Nothing can justify what Vladimir Putin has done and continues to do. But his actions did not spring fully armed like Athena from the head of Zeus. The US took a number of actions, most important being the attempt to bring Ukraine fully into the Western orbit in opposition to Russia. This and other unilateral actions helped undercut Bush’s efforts to avoid a replay of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, when punishment of a defeated belligerent (in that case Germany) helped produce revanchism and another conflict. There is major risk that, in responding to actions by the Russian Federation, the NATO alliance will over-compensate and, without intending to do so, forge an unholy partnership with Putin in solidifying a new division of Europe and a rigidification of attitudes.

Several European allies are beginning to doubt that applying all sticks without even the shadow of a carrot is the right approach for the alliance to take. Some German leaders are already expressing those doubts publicly, and many of the allies not near to Central Europe are less concerned about challenges emanating from that quarter than from the South and Southeast. NATO thus risks a slowly developing fault line that it has never faced before.

Obama as Leader

As so often in the past, only the US president can provide a broader sense of perspective and purpose along with the critical strategic underpinnings. Obama has first to understand, even if he does not say so out loud, that however much Putin has transgressed, he has not in fact upset some settled post-Cold War order in Europe to which everyone had subscribed. Despite a good start by President G. H. W. Bush, since late in the Clinton administration the Russian Federation has been excluded from the process of trying to devise a structure and practices for European security that can meet the legitimate (but not the illegitimate) requirements of all states.

Maybe the Russians are no longer interested in helping fashion some advances on European security (while not undercutting NATO and its security commitments), based on “a Europe whole and free.” But the US president has to make clear that, however necessary to show Mr. Putin that the NATO countries will protect its members, there has to be a route for Russia to “come in from the cold”—or, to put it more accurately, for everyone to do so. The alternative, to be avoided if at all possible, is that instead the Warsaw NATO summit will only join Putin in moving more in the direction of what, in future years, could be characterized as Cold War II.

At Warsaw, President Obama also needs decisively to broaden consideration of transatlantic relations far beyond NATO and political-military issues to the full agenda of critical matters. He has to enable NATO to escape being prisoner of the set agenda by enlarging that agenda—a classic tool of first-rate statesmanship.

This enlarged agenda should mimic what was done both in the late 1940s and at the end of the Cold War: recognition that both European “security” in the broadest sense and the transatlantic relations on which European “security” still ultimately depends consists of two parts. One is the combination of politics, economics, and strategic commitment (with military elements). The other is the combination of roles for both public and private sectors. These twin combinations have been in disrepair in recent years, and the US president has to show (not just tell) that the US is prepared to take the lead in bringing them together and giving them operational heft.

One hopeful sign is that Obama will meet at Warsaw with the formal leadership of the European Union. But, without disparaging the quality of these individuals, they add up politically and in leadership potential to a pretty weak lot, and the group includes nobody from the UK, France, or Germany. This meeting seems very much like a means for President Obama to fulfill, perfunctorily, a customary meeting with EU leaders, but without achieving much if anything substantial. Even at this late moment, he needs to press for a full-fledged meeting of all EU members, plus the US and Canada, as an essential part of the Warsaw events. Given that there are only six EU countries that do not also belong to NATO, the logistics are no problem. The problem is rather the lack of sufficient political will, both in Washington and in key European capitals. As part of such a meeting, the US president needs, perhaps quietly but also firmly, to read the riot act to those few members of the two organizations that continue to keep them from the full range of cooperation that the objective reality of challenges has long since demanded.

Obama needs also to forge allied agreement to put the Ukrainian government on notice that neither NATO nor the EU will tolerate continued failure to fight corruption and refusal to consider some form of limited autonomy for ethnic Russians in Ukraine. And he needs to get NATO to abandon its goal that all allies will spend at least 2% of GDP on military defense, which will never happen and thus is a sign of alliance weakness, not strength. It should be replaced with a 3% goal for spending on “security,” writ large, especially economic investment in Central Europe, which is more likely than military forces to counter Russian influence.

Most important in responding to the last two year’s European earthquakes, President Obama needs to demonstrate the highest level of political leadership and inspiration and propose a new Atlantic Compact. Such an arrangement should focus on the basic requirements of the transatlantic association, which continues to be the most important anywhere in the world. If Obama puts the idea in play and it were followed through, then various tasks could be parceled out, some to NATO, some to the EU, some to other institutions, some to the public sector, and some to the private sector.

Above all, the president of the United States has to rise above the ordinary and show this weekend that, as at so many other moments at a hinge of history, America is fully committed, and that Obama’s trip to Warsaw is not just one pro forma stop on a global victory tour.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. “…even if they do not say so openly, most Europeans are once again looking to the United States for direct engagement in Europe’s future and especially American leadership….”

    Would Washington know, if they did not say so openly, that many Europeans are resentful of America’s “direct engagement in Europe’s future and especially American leadership”? Or does Washington only listen to what it wants to hear?

  2. The greatest act of leadership that President Obama can perform before he leaves office is to declare the dissolution of NATO. NATO was formed to confront the Soviet Union. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, NATO’s mission came to an end and logically should have been dismantled. With huge military superiority over all rivals, there is no need for the United States to form such military alliances to confront Russia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia’s military spending of $66.4 billion is about 11% of US’s $596 billion. The early fathers called on the United States not to get involved in military alliances with foreign countries and only be prepared for selfdefense. Sadly, since the end of the Cold War, NATO has incorporated many former Warsaw Pact countries into it and has also been pushing closer and closer to Russian borders, contrary to the promises made to Gorbachev. Instead of ratcheting up confrontation and militarism and leading to a possible nuclear war, America should lead the way by dismantling NATO and working for a system of multi-polar international security that will serve all countries.

Comments are closed.