Obama, NATO and the Brussels Response

By Zachary Wolfraim:

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a speech at Bozar concert hall in Brussels, 26 March, 2014 (photo: Yves Herman/Reuters)

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, March 26, US President Obama visited Brussels to recommit his position to the NATO alliance. This piece is a response by a former NATO consultant who attended the event.


This speech was initially meant to discuss the transatlantic relationship, events in the Ukraine conspired to turn the event into a compelling, albeit professorial comment on the current state of transatlantic affairs. There were hints of the speech’s initial focus, highlighting the importance and endurance of the transatlantic relationship, however, mixed into this was also messaging directed at Russian critics of American power as well as a warning for the young people in the audience to not take the freedoms and prosperity we in the West enjoy, for granted. Obama couched all of these in the importance of freedom and in the framework of a respect for international law. All requisite credit to his speechwriters, he managed to do so relatively well, if not in the most dynamic fashion. Altogether, there were no surprising elements to his speech, furthermore, there was none of the previous spark and verve that has previously characterized Obama’s remarks to a young(ish) crowd.

The first key, and arguably most critical theme, was the importance of the transatlantic relationship between the US and Europe. In light of events in Crimea, this is a refrain that the US leadership has been repeating at NATO and throughout the President’s trip. After several years of Obama’s much-publicised Pacific ‘pivot’, Obama needed to reiterate to NATO Allies that the US will not turn away from Europe and that the security of the continent remained clearly in the US national interest. This of course came with the requisite warnings over European burden sharing which certainly take on greater importance given the EU’s relative impotence in the face of Russian belligerence. Nonetheless, while the US will not disengage from the NATO Alliance, European capitols should be concerned about a degree of US retrenchment after the Alliance’s Afghanistan and Libya adventures. That said, Obama correctly did not suggest any concrete realignment of US priorities regarding Europe. Given the sorry state of European defense capabilities and continued recession-driven cuts, Europe not only needs to demonstrate a greater unity of purpose, but also that it possesses its own robust capabilities to hold up its end of the transatlantic relationship.

The second key element was targeted at Moscow and sought to quiet the Russian criticism of the US. Russian leaders and commentators have sought to characterize the US and more broadly the Western response, as hypocritical. In highlighting the Iraq and Kosovo examples Obama aimed to blunt Russian criticism as, right or wrong, both conflicts were firmly situated in international fora, be it the UN, NATO or the International Court of Justice. This line of reasoning remains a bit fuzzy when one considers the legal grey areas US foreign policy still inhabits (NSA spying, drone strikes, Guantanamo etc…). Nonetheless, it highlights that the Russian pot calling the American kettle black is a weak defense of what still remains an egregious violation of international norms. Obama’s stronger gambit was to emphasise that this is not an effort by the West to undermine Russia but rather it was in our collective interest to see a “strong and responsible Russia, not a weak one.” In expressing a desire to move beyond the Cold War style rhetoric and trying to move past the language of zero sum games, it ideally helps to create some space in which dialogue can occur. Whether this elicits any kind of Russian response however remains to be seen, though scepticism is not unwarranted.

The final key element was an exhortation of the youths in Western nations to take up the torch of our forebears and defend the freedom and liberties for which they fought and died. He referenced the battlefields of northern Europe that attest to the price paid for the society of which we are now part. Despite the powerful imagery invoked, this was perhaps the most tepid part of the speech. There is a compelling case to be made about the engagement of all people in the defense of our freedoms, not just the younger generation. Obama’s warning about the parochial disputes that currently threaten the European project was well made, but this is not something that should concern only the next generation of leaders and voters, but all Europeans. Moreover, the younger generation that Obama sought to reach out to, the one which has suffered disproportionately from the economic downturn, runs the risk of becoming the most cynical and disengaged if governments remain unresponsive. This is why this element of the speech was arguably the weak link – in light of what has happened in the Crimea there needed to be a reminder to the audience that while we are all ‘heirs to the struggle for freedom’, all of us in the Western world have greater things at stake, young and old.

In the wake of the speech there was discussion among the audience as to whether this was a pivotal speech in the response to Russian aggression. Such a verdict is hard to render without context and perhaps more vitally, without Russian response. Obama sought to underline the importance of international order and his call for the vigilant defense of our freedoms is right, that said, no one should be under the illusion that Russia will surrender the Crimea. While Obama may cast the West as defenders of freedom, truth and prosperity it would be naive to assume that this is any more compelling than Russia’s counter-narratives of an greedy, arrogant West that has previously run roughshod over international law when it suited them. At the very least, NATO can breathe easy as it vindicates the move towards ‘NATO Prepared’ which reorients the Alliance towards readiness and crisis response and thus ensures its continued relevance. Fundamentally, the speech does not represent a sea-change in American policy towards Europe nor will it assuage critics of Obama who have sought to cast him as too dovish towards Russia. Nonetheless, in highlighting the importance of international norms like the ‘responsibility to protect’ and their ability to be twisted, it reminds Europe that that there are major fundamental issues at stake in the Crimea that go beyond simple questions of economics or national interest. Sadly, given the tide of anti-EU populism sweeping through Europe it is possible that this message has fallen on deaf ears.


Zachary Wolfraim is a third year PhD student in the War Studies Department, King’s College London, where he focuses on the role of narratives in shaping foreign policy in relation to NATO operations. He previously worked as a consultant in NATO Headquarters on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

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