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The Obama Administration's Engagement of Europe

President Obama has made "an unprecedented three trips to Europe during his first six months in office (including heavy lifts in Turkey and Russia)," writes Damon Wilson, Director of the Atlantic Council's International Security Program. Yet, most of his praise goes to Vice-President Biden, who flew four times over the Atlantic to make major policy announcements:

He proclaimed the Russia reset policy in Munich and previewed the administration's AFPAK review at NATO - and tackled the toughest issue on the continent: how to advance a Europe whole and free that includes the Balkans and Europe's East.  He has advanced a vision for Europe that has long enjoyed bipartisan support, but over which many, including some in the administration, have cooled as we've hit more difficult tests with Ukraine and Georgia.

Wilson concludes that Biden's four trips have helped define the Obama Administration's policy toward Europe. Moreover, rather than repudiating George W. Bush's Freedom Agenda, "Biden is rebranding it to ensure that its objectives in Europe sustain bipartisan support." Is it too early to evaluate this "rebranding" or the new administration's policy in general?

Is it just Joe?

That is what the Russians must be wondering these days. Let's recap.

Three weeks ago, President Obama goes to Moscow and holds a speech saying that he recognizes "the future benefit that will come from a strong and vibrant Russia", talks about Russia's "rightful place as a great power", and states: "The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game". He offers a few words about the right of Russia's neighbours to set their own foreign policy, but follows up by saying that NATO seeks "collaboration, not confrontation" with Russia.

To the ever-suspicious Russians, this should have sounded like an actual attempt to improve relations.

Cue Joe Biden. The VP was sent on a quick tour to Ukraine and Georgia to assuage fears that the US would change its stance on their possible future membership of NATO. Biden did that part of the job well enough, giving some combative language that the US would "stand by" Georgia, but also making it clear that there was no military way for the country to regain control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, Biden then decided to give an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he managed to insult just about everyone - even the Georgians - but most of all the Russians. The WSJ headline 'Biden Says Weakened Russia Will Bend To US' is hardly an exaggeration.

When Biden recently made some silly remarks about Israel striking Iran, Mickey Kaus pointed out that this might be a useful form of strategic ambiguity. You might want that kind of thing with regard to Iran, but don't think strategic ambiguity would be useful with regard to Russia, especially in the context of trying to improve relations. So if the White House was ever serious about that, it will have to find a way to communicate that its really only Joe, you know.

"The Strongest Pledge One Nation Can Make"

Wesley Clark, NATO's former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told Newsweek:

NATO is an organization in which nations pledge themselves together with the strongest pledge one nation can make to another, which is that an attack on one represents an attack on all. That's still the most powerful relationship between states. Among all other international organizations, there are none stronger than the relationships of NATO.

His comment on US-Russian relations is interesting as well:

I heard from Condi Rice in 2000 that the Clinton administration had somehow destroyed relations with Russia and that the new team would make things better. Now we're [talking about "resetting"] relations again.

We Need to Focus on Russia

While Western Europe welcomed VP Biden and Secretary Clinton's announcement for a new and more open engagement of Russia, Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation thinks that America should not push the reset button yet.

Dr. Cohen is concerned about Russia's Revisionist Foreign Policy. He argues that Obama administration "must raise the profile of Russian, Eurasian, and Caspian affairs on the U.S. foreign policy agenda," because "Russia is and will remain one of the most significant foreign policy challenges."

Russia strives to dominate Europe, particularly Eastern and Central Europe, including Germany, through its quasi-monopolistic gas supply and its significant share of the oil market and of other strategic resources. (...) Russian energy giant Gazprom has been on a shopping spree, acquiring European energy assets. Europe is projected to be dependent on Russia for over 60 percent of its gas consumption by 2030, with some countries already 100 percent dependent on Gazprom. Russia has shown a willingness to use this dependency and its energy influence as a tool of foreign policy, shutting down or threatening to shut down the flow of gas to countries perceived to be acting against Moscow's interest, as in the cases of Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

German policy makers are considerably less concerned about dependence on Russia gas and argue that Russia needs trade with us at least as much. Perhaps they are naive. Or the Heritage expert still has a Cold War mindset. Or it is a mix of both.

I mistrust the Russian government and I am concerned about Russia's foreign policy, but believe that a new engagement (pushing the reset button) will serve us better than Cold War rhetoric. We need to work with Russia on common challenges (nuclear disarmament, sanctions on Iran, proliferation in general, Afghanistan, transport routes to Afghanistan etc) and should avoid for now unnecessary confrontations over missile defense and further NATO enlargement for Georgia and Ukraine, which are not ready yet anyway and who would not contribute to our collective defense.

In my humble opinion, Obama is on the right track. Europeans, however, still have to do their homework: We need to reduce our energy dependence on Russia and we need to a joint EU position on Russia, i.e. need to find consensus among Western and Eastern EU members. Russia will only respect a strong and united EU.

Germany Pushes for Gas Pipeline with Russia

Ulf Gartzke writes in the Weekly Standard blog:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, to back the planned Nord Stream gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea. According to leaked excerpts of the letter, published by the Financial Times Deutschland, the German leader argues that the recent gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine showed "that the EU must become more independent and crisis-resistant in its energy supplies". To achieve that end, Merkel writes, the EU needs to better diversify its gas supply and transport routes. Hence it was of "great significance" that the Nabucco, Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines should be "politically desired and supported by all EU member states".

Torch passed to Obama, 44th President; top 8 transatlantic relations issues for 2009

Obama took the oath of office yesterday to become the 44th President of the United States.  The swearing-in was followed by his inaugural address, historically an opportunity for incoming presidents to be visionary and inspirational.  Some of the most famous quotes in US political history are from inaugural addresses, such as JFK's "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" (1961) and FDR's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" (1933).

So how did Obama do? Was it a new landmark in the US rhetorical hall-of-fame?  If you were looking to be inspired, this speech probably fell short.  He covered all the key issues and took a "it's busines time" tone, but it did not quite carry the poetic and inspiring overtures that an inaugural address could. Or perhaps like many Americans and citizens of the world I have come to expect miracles from Obama at every turn, and have thereby set myself up for disappointment.  The full text of the speech can be found here.

Obama did have powerful words for non-Americans around the globe:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.  Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. 

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediences sake.  And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born:  know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
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NATO 2.0: Five ways Obama should bring "change" to Alliance

It is time for Obama to bring his change campaign to NATO, writes James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation in Washington Times. Carafano argues Obama should use NATO's 60th anniversary to launch a new vision for the military alliance, which he refers to as NATO 2.0. Specifically NATO needs to take action on five major issues:

1. Identify common threats; 
2. Reaffirm NATO's commitment to an open-door policy that does not give Russia veto-power;
3. Establish a more flexible decision-making process;
4. Clearly identify roles between EU and NATO, with NATO doing military and EU doing more of the constabulary non-military “soft power” missions that it excels at;
5. Develop new burden-sharing rules.

All of these are important issues that should be considered; in fact, most are  already being debated within the Alliance.  However, each of them will also face an uphill battle in the reform process.

Consider proposition five, developing new burden-sharing rules.  Carafano argues that a country should lose voting powers if it fails to match the two-percent defense spending requirement set by NATO.  At this time, only five European countries meet this requirement, three of those with declining defense budgets, according to 2007 numbers released by NATO (pdf).
 
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Europe's very cold war: Russia cuts gas to Ukraine

Ukraine enters 2009 stuck between a bear and a hard place. 

The hard place is the west, who is like a friend who always says your invitation to the party is in the mail, but it never shows up.  Since the 2004 Orange Revolution Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has pushed and pulled to move Ukraine toward EU and NATO membership, and yet its prospects remain shrouded in ambiguity.  While NATO has promised future membership someday, the Alliance decided to not move forward with Membership Action Plans for either Ukraine or Georgia at a NATO summit in December, again leaving them in limbo.  

And then there is the bear: Ukraine’s slow push west is a thorn in the toe of Russia who considers Ukraine part of its sphere of influence, and is increasingly tenacious in bearing its chilling grizzly teeth.
 
2009 is not likely to bring much warmer relations for Ukraine with either the west or Russia.  I wrote about Ukraine’s improbable 2009 NATO prospects in a post titled "Why Ukrainian’s don’t want NATO".  Regarding Ukraine’s easterly neighbor, Russia has launched the new year with a cut off of gas to Ukraine leaving it and a baker's dozen of European countries with (in some cases drastically) reduced gas supplies at a time when it is cold in Europe, very cold.

The reasons for Russia’s gas power play are both economic and political

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