Lisbon Summits Offer Success For U.S., Russia And EU -- At Least On Paper     Print Email

(Nov. 22)   The three summit meetings last weekend resulted in what New York gamblers call a “trifecta” of three wins:  the leadership of the NATO alliance set a framework for missile defense in Europe without undermining nuclear deterrence as an ultimate security guaranty; Russia returned to its special partnership with NATO for the first time since the Georgia war in 2008; and the EU fielded an effectively streamlined team (the result of its own Lisbon treaty last year) that has already bolstered the pace of  EU-US cooperation.

That outcome was a welcome diplomatic success for President Barack Obama, and it will boost the political stock of Russia’s head of state and of the European allies in NATO that they can all do business together on security – at least on paper.

The headline issues were:

  • NATO-wide missile defense

  • The strategic concept to guide the alliance going forward

  • The NATO-led war in Afghanistan

  • Russia-NATO relations

  • U.S.-EU ties

In a way, the string of good news that emerged from the summit meetings over two days and nights in Lisbon resembled a big Christmas for everyone, where the presents were bought on credit cards.  It made for a good celebration and good feelings all around. But we will have to see if the celebrants can pay up when their credit is called.

The NATO summit turned on the question of the new U.S.-led missile shield that the Obama administration has scaled back and redesigned so that it can be phased in more credibly and perhaps offer a way for Russia to cooperate with the system (and benefit from it).  Presented this way, the project managed to overcome the fierce longstanding hostility of Moscow, which now says that it will examine ways to work with it, not oppose it.

This should remove a major bone of contention and reassure EU nations, starting with Germany, that the way is open for cooperation on constructive issues with Moscow.  EU countries in east and central Europe will be reassured by the alliance’s ability to proceed on an issue that had displeased the Russians. And Turkey, which is strategic territory for locating one of the system’s sensors, was induced to join by the alliance’s agreement not to single out as its main target, Iran (a country with which Ankara is trying to improve relations).  (France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy went ahead anyway and named Iran as the main concern in a post-meeting news conference.)

But the bill remains. How much will it cost?  Some say $500 million, some say $1 billion. At least now the alliance is haggling over the cost, not the principle.

A sensitive issue on missile defense, particularly for Germany, arises from perceptions in that country that the defensive action could trigger a new arms race if countries (perhaps even Russia) build more and better nuclear strike forces to be sure of being able to “overcome” a defense.  So, Berlin wanted defense linked to nuclear arms cuts. Here, France came to the rescue with the necessary compromise to prevent any undercutting of NATO’s nuclear dimension. France, with its own force de frappe, wants to defend the role of nuclear weapons (at least as long as other countries have or seek them).   And Germany needs French help in imposing tighter economic discipline in Europe. So Paris, backed by the U.S., was able to maintain in the final NATO communiqué a concept of its own preference--casting missile defense as a “complement” to nuclear deterrence, not a “substitute” for nuclear weapons. Chancellor Angela Merkel fought the wording, but the final documents preserve the essence of the U.S.-French concept.

But here again there is a large bill to be paid: the Obama administration needs to deliver on its promise of U.S. ratification of the stalled “New Start” treaty on cutting and inspecting the strategic nuclear weapons of the U.S. and Russia. Without that treaty, the prospects of a “fresh start” in U.S.-Russian relations, of reductions in Russia’s thousands of short-range nuclear missiles and of the U.S. handfuls of nuclear bombs in Europe seem blocked. In Washington, the Obama administration is using all its leverage to pass the treaty. Taking a leaf from the old NATO playbook of earlier U.S. treaties with Moscow as they neared the finish line, U.S. officials got NATO leaders to speak out forcefully about their desire to see the “New Start” treaty ratified. Will their voices matter as much these days in Washington?  Can the White House make good on what amounts to a promissory note?

The  Alliance’s new “strategic concept” was largely precooked. It will streamline NATO operations, by compressing the number of commands and high officers for more efficiency at less cost. It will also renew the (theoretically necessary) balance between strong defense of Europe and the U.S. (reinforcing Article 5 involving joint military response to an attack) and the need for “out of area” expeditions to crises such as Afghanistan. But the discussion, surprisingly, managed to get to a more essential issue: the need to tear down the doctrinal “wall” that separates NATO and the EU on military matters. On this point, Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus was again the problem, with Turkey in NATO and not in the EU and Cyprus in the opposite situation, and neither wanting changes that would give a stronger voice to the other.

On Afghanistan, the U.S. got what it wanted: a commitment to fight until 2014, with diminishing intensity and numbers and then to stay on indefinitely in a support role. This should ease some of the recent friction with Afghanistan’s President Karzai and could even be a valid battle plan.

But the bill?  Allies are starting to talk about pulling out troops.  Few if any are promising to send in trainers or any other reinforcements.

On the “reset” with Russia, which is now being called a “fresh start,” much will hinge on the fate of the New Start treaty. Without US ratification, the “nationalists” in Moscow will be able to press their case for paying only lip service to U.S. calls for ever-tighter pressure on Iran.  And, European countries will be tempted to find their bilateral ways of accommodating Moscow on natural gas or even on some new Russia-Europe security efforts – for example, affecting “frozen conflicts” such as Moldova’s territorial claims.  

As these bills come due, the reckoning will have a much greater impact on U.S.-EU relations than anything that can be been said in the 90 minute summit in Lisbon. Afterwards, President Obama explained that it was easy to have a short meeting because “we agree about so many things.” He then went on to pay homage to the supreme importance of trans-Atlantic solidarity.

It was a surprisingly harmonious and promising set of meetings, particularly coming amid the financial crisis besetting the euro and on the heels of some acrimony in the run-up to the recent G-20 summit in Seoul and the bleak outlook for cooperation on climate-change in Cancun.  Here, at least, on hard security issues and the improved tone of relations with Russia, the signs were positive. Now it remains to be seen how well the partners can put their houses in order at home and then manage to deliver on the promises they exchanged in Lisbon.

-- European Affairs.