President Obama’s Berlin speech and trip to Europe came at a historical inflection point: The European Union (EU) has been in recession and financial crisis for more than four years. Youth unemployment is a staggering 25 percent. The very idea of Europe is being called into question. Moreover, NATO’s purpose leaves many scratching their heads, and transatlantic relations are floundering.
It is clearly a time for inspirational leadership. One might have hoped for a Berlin speech that encouraged a European Germany to take EU economic and political integration to a new level. The president might have called for bold German leadership. He might have used the occasion to trumpet the strategic virtues of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a potential game changer that could rejuvenate transatlantic ties, bolstering the leverage of half the world’s economy in shaping the international system of the twenty-first century, not to mention breathing new life in a sagging world trade regime.
But no. Instead, we got a nostalgic walk through memory lane, a playing to the gallery with yet another Cold War victory lap. Obama dusted off Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” and Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” line. Of course, it was Obama at his poetic best, recounting the “yearnings for peace that burns in the human heart,” and Berlin as the “city of hope.”
But it was also a transparent quest for a legacy. Five years after his “zero nukes” Prague speech, the global nuclear reality has become, if anything, more dangerous and complex: it is going in the opposite direction of nuclear zero. So Obama pulled a U.S.-Russian arms-control proposal out of his hat: reductions down to one thousand warheads each.
To give the administration its due, further undoing the legacy of the Cold War is not a bad thing. But whether the United States and Russia have 1300 or 1000 nukes each makes only a marginal difference in a brave new world where problems like Pakistani battlefield nukes, the spectre of North Korean nuclear entrepreneurship, and Iranian proliferation are the contemporary nuclear nightmares.
Indeed, how much does it matter if Russia has 1300 or 1000 nukes, anymore than it matters that France has 300? The main purpose of nuclear weapons (since we can’t uninvent them) is to deter their use by others. Not discounting what a Soprano-state Russian president Vladimir Putin runs, it still strains the imagination to conceive a scenario of major conflict with Russia, let alone one that would escalate to nuclear war.
The bipolar world of a U.S.-Soviet balance of terror is thankfully history. The biggest threat is that of nuclear security, the risk that terrorists obtain a loose or stolen nuclear weapon or nuclear material. To his credit, Obama has made nuclear security one of his signature issues.
But if you were a second-term president contemplating the fullness of your legacy, would reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arms (that have already been reduced 80 percent from Cold War levels) by a few hundred more be more significant than the future of Europe? The president seems to have forgotten that there is potential a role for the United States in facilitating a more unified Europe, whole and free. This includes a U.S.-EU economic pact that rejuvenates the relationship, creates a transatlantic bond that provides strategic leverage by enhancing Western power to shape the future of the global trade regime and, more broadly, the rules for an international system transforming in a world of diffusing power. Would this not be be a more important legacy? How about reassuring our European allies that his “pivot” to Asia is not coming at their expense?
Why Obama chose nostalgia over using his Berlin speech and Europe visit to stump for meeting the serious challenges facing both Europe and the transatlantic relationship is something that only he can truly answer. But one wonders where the sense of strategy lies in this White House. Berlin was the performance of a politician more than a statesman.
Yet Obama is only six months into his second term. What sort of world will he leave his successor in 2017? It is difficult to see any denouement in a Middle East transformation that is likely to continue unfolding over the course of a generation. In the meantime, the Syrian conflict appears to be threatening to unravel the post-Ottoman state system in the region. A deepening Sunni-Shia sectarian proxy war spilling over its borders appears more likely than a Geneva-negotiated peaceful transition. If you can discern a U.S. Middle East strategy, I would love to hear it.
In Asia, China’s assertive rise has thrown all the balls in the air. Obama’s recent summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping could open a new chapter in a troubled relationship and help reassure the region. But there were few signs in the summit’s aftermath that a new path in Sino-American relations is being taken.
To be fair, in a world where global power is ever more diffuse, where emerging economies like China, India, Brazil and Turkey have their own agendas, there is a dearth of opportunities for bold foreign achievements. This is why efforts to solve global problems, from climate change to a new global trade round, have foundered. Managing this century’s global disorder, where it is easy to block things and very difficult to build enough consensus to achieve success, is just not fun.
All this makes Obama’s behavior in Europe still more puzzling. One would have thought that in this political universe, where achieving U.S. desired outcomes is ever more difficult, that an all-out effort to bolstering what remains a foundation of U.S. foreign policy, the transatlantic relationship would be job one. What better legacy? And how better to position the United States, and indeed the West, to grapple with the strategic challenges of this generation?
Given Europe’s morass, a little U.S. leadership could go a long way. The headline of new arms control talks may have merit. But in terms of strategic priorities, it leaves something to be desired. At the end of the day, I fear we are looking at a serious missed opportunity.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004 and as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008. This piece first appeared in The National Interest.