The West and Russia Why Obama's Legacy Hinges on Europe
Barack Obama has labeled Russia a "regional power" that is acting out of weakness rather than strength. That may be so. But the US president's own foreign policy legacy depends heavily on Vladimir Putin -- and Europe.
Barack Obama is has a reputation for extreme rationality -- or for being coldly calculating, depending on the viewpoint. Self-control is paramount, and he rarely loses it. One can assume, then, that Obama's barbed comments on Russia, delivered at a Tuesday press conference in The Hague, were designed to provoke. They also show just how vexed the US president is by Russian President Vladimir Putin's exploits in Crimea.
Russia, Obama said following the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands, is a "regional power" that is threatening its neighbors "not out of strength, but out of weakness."
It is a comment that is sure to ruffle Putin's feathers; the Russian president, after all, has shown a penchant for consulting the czarist playbook it his attempt to boost his country's role on the global stage. But Obama wasn't done yet. The US too exerts influence over its neighbors, the president said. However: "We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them." And: "Russian actions are a problem. They don't pose the number one security threat to the United States."
It would be difficult to prove the US president wrong. Russian power is certainly not what it used to be and its expansionary tendencies are largely a reaction to the weak geopolitical position in which it finds itself. And it certainly does not represent a direct threat to the US: An invasion of Alaska seems unlikely and a nuclear attack is out of the question.
But indirectly, Russia does present a grave danger -- to Obama himself. Putin is threatening Obama's credibility as the leader and guarantor of the West.
From the very beginning of his presidency, Obama has been more focused on consolidating US forces rather than embarking on new international adventures. He has significantly reduced America's military footprint overseas, vocally demanded more help from US allies, emphasized the need for multilateral conflict solutions and preferred to focus on domestic issues as much as possible. Obama's retrenchment largely reflects the desires of the American electorate after eight years of George W. Bush.
What does it mean for the current crisis, though? Does his cautious approach to foreign policy automatically mean he is a weak president? And was it a factor in Putin's decision to act in Crimea?
No matter how Obama views Russia, the Ukraine crisis and how he chooses to confront Putin will be decisive for his foreign policy legacy. That he ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is certainly worthy of praise. But a triumph of his own making remains to be seen.
"For any president engaged in retrenchment, policy success is not measured simply by how well the United States extricates itself from old involvements," Stephen Sestanovich, the renowned Russia expert and former advisor to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, writes in his new book "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama." The decisive question, he writes, is: "How well are new challenges handled?"
There are plenty of them: the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program, the civil war in Syria, a budding military dictatorship in Egypt, China's more aggressive stance toward US allies in Asia -- and now Putin's Russia. The limits to Obama's power are being tested across the globe. And almost all autocrats present America as the enemy as a way of stabilizing their own power.
Republican hawks have long since begun joking about Obama's allegedly naïve attempt to "reset" US relations with Russia. His predecessor George W. Bush, a man who was driven by obsessions in much the same way that Putin is, is now being celebrated as a strong president, although he wasn't even able to apply sanctions comparable to the current ones in response to Russia's conflict with Georgia in 2008. But Obama's mistake is that he underestimated the revanchist nature of Putin's foreign policy. The Russian president is much less interested in cooperation with the West than he is in constructing an alternative to the West. Putin is a man of the past -- one whom Obama had sought to drag into the 21st century. Mission failed.
It is telling how Obama, on his current European tour, has relied on emphasizing the self-evident to guard against misleading perceptions. As he did on Tuesday, when he ensured Eastern European allies that NATO's Article 5, which treats an attack on one member as an attack on the entire alliance, remains in force. "Every one of our NATO allies has assurances that we will act in their defense against any threats," he intoned. That sounds good. But it is akin to the local fire department calling every day to ensure home owners that it would respond to a fire should the need arise. On the other hand, if Obama had refrained from uttering such a reassurance, how would it have been interpreted?
The situation is a challenging one. But it is a fateful one for both Obama and the future of US foreign policy. How he navigates it will determine whether he, the retrenchment president, will go down in history as a strong or a weak president, and will inform the policies of those that come after him.
Much is dependent upon Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders; such appears to be the consensus in Washington. Will the EU and US show unity and a willingness to accept potential economic burdens that may result from their response to Russia? Or will the trans-Atlantic relationship suffer anew?
In short, Europe's path will have a decisive impact on the future foreign policy course charted by the world's last remaining superpower. Obama's legacy hangs in the balance.
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley