Obama’s Disinterest in Europe: An Update

bored-obama-3Two earlier posts (here and here) argued that President Barack Obama has largely been disinterested in America’s European allies.  Although this view attracted criticism from those insisting I exaggerated the case, evidence has continued to roll in buttressing my position.

The newest piece of proof comes courtesy of DC Leaks, a website that has posted materials purloined from, among others, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.  Included in its collection are emails hacked from the personal Gmail account of General Philip Breedlove, who until recently served as NATO’s supreme military commander.

Two of Breedlove’s notes are particularly striking.  In the first, he writes to Colin Powell in September 2014, six months after Russia’s seizure of the Crimea peninsula, seeking the former U.S. Secretary of State’s assistance in re-energizing the Obama administration’s focus on European affairs.  Breedlove confides that “I do not see this [White House] as really ‘engaged’ on Europe/NATO.”

A second note in March 2015 concerns the extraordinary snub Mr. Obama had just delivered to Jens Stoltenberg, who months earlier had been appointed as NATO’s secretary general.  Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, all passed up a chance to confer with Stoltenberg during his visit to Washington even as Russian depredations against Ukraine continued.  According to a media report, Stoltenberg requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit but never heard back from the White House.

Commenting on the incident, Breedlove laments to a friend that “This is a mess.  I do not understand our [White House].”

At a NATO summit two months ago, Obama declared that “in good times and in bad, Europe can count on the United States – always.”  But many of his actions have registered the opposite message, so much so that the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee even blames the president for begetting Donald Trump’s skepticism of the NATO alliance.  (For a similar view by a U.S. foreign policy pundit, see here.)

Eight years ago, Mr. Obama won over European hearts by promising not to conduct himself like George W. Bush and the continent gratefully responded by awarding him a Nobel peace prize in the mere anticipation he would live up to his promise.  He has indeed been true to his word, though very much not in a way European leaders had hoped.  Reflecting on Obama’s legacy for U.S.-European relations, Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain, recently concluded that “the lasting impression that Barack Obama will leave us [Europeans] with is one of disenchantment.”

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Obama’s NATO Snub is a Familiar Story

This month’s headlines chronicling the breakdown in U.S.-Israeli affairs and the personal disdain between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have overshadowed the continuing dysfunctions in Washington’s relations with its traditional allies in Europe.

Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View reports that Mr. Obama has delivered what can only be regarded as an extraordinary snub to Jens Stoltenberg, who became the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization six months ago.  Obama is one of the few Western leaders not yet to have met with Stoltenberg and has deliberately passed up a chance to see him this week when Stoltenberg is in Washington.  Rogin notes that the NATO chief was able to arrange a last-minute meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, though he requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit but never heard back from the White House.

The upshot is that Obama is missing a good opportunity to firm up NATO solidarity in the face of Moscow’s on-going predations against Ukraine.  As Rogin concludes, “the message Russian President Vladimir Putin will take away is that the White House-NATO relationship is rocky, and he will be right.”  Moreover, given that Stoltenberg is a two-time prime minister of Norway, a meeting would have sent a powerful message to Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark that are facing increased Russian provocations (here, here and here).

As I noted in an earlier post, Mr. Obama’s disinterest in America’s European allies is a long-standing story.  Beyond the foreign policy consequences of how the president has mismanaged relations with the continent, a surfeit of irony is also at work.  His promise to repair the damaged ties caused by the acrimony over the Iraq war guaranteed him euphoric welcomes in Berlin in July 2008 and in Prague the following spring.  Speaking before a massive crowd assembled in Berlin’s “Tiergarten” (speech text here; video here), he grandly vowed to “remake the world once again,” this time in a way that allies would “listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.”  That pledge is now so yesterday that some European leaders are reportedly longing for the days of George W. Bush.

[UPDATE, April 1: A more detailed version of this post is now up on The National Interest‘s website.]

[UPDATE, February 15, 2016: According to a new Bloomberg View report, the consensus among European officials and experts attending this year’s Munich Security Conference is that the Obama administration is prepared to continue sitting on the sidelines as the continent grapples with a series of critical issues.

Also worth noting is last week’s column in the New York Times by Roger Cohen, the newspaper’s former foreign editor.  He quotes a senior European diplomat as saying that Mr. Obama “is not interested in Europe.”  Cohen adds “That is a fair assessment of the first postwar American leader for whom the core trans-Atlantic alliance was something to be dutifully upheld rather than emotionally embraced.”]

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