Obama Trip to Europe—Crimea Creates Need for Brussels “Reset” (3/24)     Print Email

By Michael D. Mosettig, Former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour

When first announced earlier this year, President Obama's trip to Europe, and especially his first ever stop over in Brussels, appeared to be more a mission of gestures than substance. Now, with the Russian annexation of Crimea, a courtesy call has become something of a crisis meeting with a suddenly crammed agenda.

The U.S. president's trip ---to the Hague (for a nuclear summit), then to Brussels (stops at EU and NATO headquarters) and then to Rome for meetings with Pope Francis (who has become the international rock star that Obama was in 2008-09) and the new Italian government ---has also put into sharper relief already existing tensions between the U.S. and its European allies.

The question now --and one hardly likely to be resolved in a flying visit -- is whether Cold War alliances will be rejuvenated after nearly 25 years of both partners turning inward and being consumed by their internal problems.

In advance of the trip, Obama Administration officials have asserted that the U.S. seeks to deepen its partnership with Europeans on everything from trade to defense and that Europe is a key strategic ally.

The response from many Europeans is more skeptical, and it was on display in a three-hour session of analysts and commentators at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week.

A litany of doubts was aired, including warnings that first and foremost the key U.S.-German relationship is in much worse shape than publicly evident. Reports abound that Obama's National Security Council staff and Chancellor Angela Merkel's cadre in the Chancellery are barely on speaking terms, the NSA spying still bites deeply and  the two principals have had a cool relationship since Merkel turned down candidate Obama's request to speak at the Brandenburg Gate in 2008. ,Added to that are suggestions that President Obama should re-think the U.S. pivot to Asia, that he needs to demonstrate far more assertive leadership of the alliance while at the same time realizing that Europe now has a far deeper economic relationship with Russia than during the Cold War and that the EU cannot be transformed into a strategic institution.

In practical terms, some logistic and political problems weigh heavily. First, the President is meeting with the lame duck Commission. How much forward motion he can gain on the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations is questionable. Nudging European nations to increase defense spending, after years of slashing it will be an uphill push.

One issue likely to surge much higher on the agenda is energy. In the U.S., the domestic debate already has become more vocal on exporting some of America's oil and gas surpluses to Europe to help reduce its 30 percent dependence on Russian energy. At the CSIS meeting, the French strategic analyst Francois Heisbourg said the Ukraine crisis should force Germany to re-think plans to phase out nuclear power generation. That idea was promptly dismissed by German Green party representatives.

Beyond raising issues and questions within the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, the Obama trip probably will help intensify the intra-European debate about its institutions, already sharpened by political brawling in advance of  the European parliamentary elections. It certainly had that effect at the CSIS session.

Most fundamentally, the future of European federalism was up for debate even among a group of pro-federalist Europeans including Heisbourg, Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman, Die Zeit editor Josef Joffe and two Euro-Americans, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum, now resident in Berlin as banker. Kornblum was most skeptical about the future of European federalism, saying American-style institutions have little relevance for a collection of separate European nations. To which Heisbourg responded, without federalism, the Euro currency "will have to go," though it will muddle along through years of more slow economic growth.

Where they all agreed was that Russia's moves in Crimea marked a turning point for Europe and the United States. On the one hand, back to the future, or as Rachman put it, NATO returning to its traditional role rather than groping for new missions. As Joffe said, the U.S. will be dragged back to Europe. And after a post-Cold War interlude, said Heisbourg, Europe now has to think of Russia as an antagonistic power. But, added Kornblum, it will have to develop institutions suited to the 21st century, not to the end of World War II and the onset of the Cold War.