Disarray in NATO Completes Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy

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July 11, 2016

As of Friday, when NATO concluded its most important gathering since the Cold War ended, the North Atlantic alliance has a full menu of new tasks. So does Barack Obama’s successor.

With the Warsaw summit, Obama’s foreign policy legacy is now complete in outline -- and there’s more mess than success in it. The administration has just has elevated Cold War II to official policy across both oceans.

The Warsaw summit confirms Russia as implacable enemy No. 1, while Defense Secretary Carter’s recent campaign to up the military ante in the western Pacific casts China as a close No. 2.

Related: NATO-Russia Council to meet in possible move to ease tensions

Barack Obama, the peacenik president, turns out to be highly proficient at cultivating enemies. In both cases, the administration has left immense room for cooperation on questions of shared concern more or less unexplored.

Obama was eager-on-the-way-to-desperate to project an image of unity among NATO’s 28 members when the Warsaw proceedings concluded. But by misreading the moment—a habit of his on the foreign side—Obama has made worsening divisions in trans–Atlantic relations another certain aspect of what he will leave behind.

Yes, Britain’s June 23 vote to leave the European Union was a bad backdrop for a gathering intended to reaffirm NATO’s traditional tasks and define new ones. From its beginning in 1949, the Anglo–American relationship has been the steel beam holding up the alliance.

But there’s no putting the Warsaw summit’s very mixed outcome down to the Brexit. What transpired in the Polish capital reflects two realities: This administration has overplayed its hand for years, and it consistently pretends to success while creating uncertainty and resistance among traditional allies.

Related: Brexit Anxiety Eats Into NATO Summit

Well before Warsaw, NATO had trouble persuading members to participate in plans to rotate troops through Poland and the Baltic states, as announced earlier this year. Why did Washington fail to read the reluctance as a warning signal?

As now agreed, the U.S. will deploy a battalion in Poland, and Germany will send one to Lithuania. A British battalion goes to Estonia, and Canada sends one to Latvia. About 4,000 soldiers will deploy, but it was a tooth-pull until shortly before the NATO convention.

“Lurking beneath a veneer of unity was growing evidence in Warsaw of fissures within Europe that go beyond the highly visible split with Britain,” The New York Times reported Sunday.

France, Italy, Finland, and even Germany, all long restive with the sanctions regime the U.S. maintains against Russia, “are showing signs of wavering,” as The Times reported. Nobody put this better than Frank–Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democratic foreign minister in Chancellor Merkel’s coalition cabinet.

“We don’t want a Cold War,” Steinmeier pointedly told reporters at a press conference in Warsaw Saturday. “Rather, we’re putting dialogue alongside our defense readiness.”   

As a result, the summit agreed to schedule a NATO–Russia Council meeting as early as next week.

Related: NATO Takes Over U.S.-Built Missile Shield, Amid Russian Suspicion

We’re now watching a case of schizophrenia develop within NATO. While many Continentals urge diplomatic engagement, Washington and Moscow are taking turns expelling each other’s diplomats—a Cold War classic if ever there was one.

As during Cold War I, there’s little evidence that NATO’s hawks are able to register how the alliance’s new deployments, which includes a newly operational missile-defense system, appear from the other side. “NATO poses no threat to any country,” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s (Norwegian) secretary-general, said in Warsaw. “We do not want a new Cold War. We do not want a new arms race. And we do not seek confrontation.”

Leaving aside whether or not this is plausible, good statecraft requires an understanding of Russia’s perspective. “NATO has begun preparations for escalating from the Cold War into a hot one,” Michail Gorbachev, who still commands respect in the West, said in reacting to the alliance’s newly agreed deployments.

That’s a mild expression of the view from Moscow. One can only wish President Obama’s successor a very good time as he or she negotiates a path through this minefield.

A day before leaving for Warsaw, Obama announced that contrary to earlier plans, he would leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, in part to encourage other NATO members to make commitments as Kabul loses ground in the fight against the Taliban.

Related: Burden Sharing Woes to Cloud Obama's Trip to NATO Summit

With Stoltenberg’s help, Obama got the alliance to continue funding the Afghanistan campaign through 2020. But look at the figure: $1 billion a year is taxi fare. (Based on responsible estimates published last year, total costs are now well more than $1 trillion.)

In effect, Afghanistan is likely to prove another case of Washington isolating itself unduly—and another headache for Obama’s successor.

In The Hague, an international tribunal is to rule this week in a case the Philippines brought against China in 2013—apparently at then–Secretary of State Clinton’s urging—to resolve conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Beijing made clear nearly two years ago that it doesn’t respect the tribunal’s jurisdiction. So if the point is to further alienate the Chinese and raise tensions in the region another notch, the exercise will prove a success; nothing else will be accomplished.

The court decision will follow several months of steady visits to the region by Defense Secretary Carter and top naval commanders, each of whom further inflamed tensions over how sovereignty and territorial questions are to be resolved and how maritime security is to be maintained in the western Pacific.  

It’s bad strategy and worse tactics—especially since Manila had earlier agreed to negotiate its differences with Beijing bilaterally. In the post–Obama years, we may find that Asians are not quite as desperate as Obama’s people are to see a standoff between Washington and Beijing.

Indeed, Rodrigo Duterte, the flamboyant pol Filipinos elected president in May, wasted no time signaling his willingness to negotiate with the Chinese.

It’s a record of misjudgment the next occupant of the White House will have a tough time correcting, as the NATO summit in Warsaw reminds us. 

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