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A 21st Century NATO: Obama’s Lisbon Agenda

Commentary, 19 November 2010
Americas, International Institutions, Europe
This NATO Summit is a key opportunity for Obama to define a new agenda that will reset America's relationship with both Europe and the transatlantic community.

This NATO Summit is a key opportunity for Obama to define a new agenda that will reset America's relationship with both Europe and the transatlantic community.

Dr Lisa Aronsson, Head, Transatlantic Security Programme


After a midterm electoral defeat and a political 'shellacking' in Asia, President Barack Obama will be hard pressed to deliver foreign policy successes at the NATO Summit in Lisbon. The transatlantic community is under enormous financial pressure and allies are still struggling to change the momentum in the difficult war in Afghanistan. Moreover, an increasing number of Europeans share a vague sense that the US has shifted its attention to the Pacific, that Obama sees Europe as marginal to security outcomes, or that it is irrelevant in world politics. Even staunch Atlanticists are beginning to see that the ties are fraying.

As President Obama arrives in Europe, he will look for concrete steps in three key areas: Afghanistan, NATO and Russia. He will aim to align perspectives on transition and timeline for Afghanistan. He will try to revitalise NATO with the new Strategic Concept while positioning it to engage with new partners on a global scale and preparing it to combat emerging threats. Finally, President Obama will try to extend the US-Russia reset to a NATO-wide reset in relations with Russia while promoting enhanced co-operation on several issues of mutual concern. As Ian Brzezinski pointed out in the New York Times, however, Obama must use the Lisbon Summit meetings for a broader purpose: to reaffirm Europe's centrality in America's global strategy.

Afghanistan's Transition

Afghanistan will be one of America's top priorities on the agenda for the Lisbon Summit but it is unlikely that Obama can achieve much more than a change in narrative. It has been nearly a year since Obama announced his West Point Strategy for Afghanistan, and he needs a NATO-wide affirmation that it is the right strategy and that it is on the right track. General David H. Petraeus is satisfied, now that the additional resources have reached the theatre, but there is still considerable doubt across the Alliance as to why the Allies are engaged in Afghanistan and whether or not the war is going well. Obama needs to approach this discussion with confidence about ISAF's efforts and Afghanistan's future, and he needs a wide political agreement demonstrating that progress is being made and that the country is nearly ready to begin transition and that it can be complete by 2014, a goal set by President Karzai himself.

Such an agreement would not only align perspectives on Afghanistan, but it would reinforce NATO's commitment to both a rapid transition and its enduring commitment to Afghanistan's security and development over the longer term. Pending this agreement, the discussion could then address current needs such as growing requirements for trainers on the ground, support for Karzai's dialogue with Taliban leaders, and ways in which the international community can support the Afghan government through the transition process. As ISAF gains the momentum in Afghanistan, a transition agreement or a NATO-Afghanistan partnership or memorandum of understanding could signal political victories for President Obama.

NATO Reform and Capabilities

Alongside Afghanistan, the Lisbon Summit will also focus on NATO reform and capabilities. It presents an opportunity to launch what Ambassador Daalder called NATO 3.0.[3] After the Cold War it focused on consolidating the Cold War victory in the Balkans and through enlargement, but NATO 3.0 must reflect the globalised world and global security interdependence. The new NATO must spend better to do this. It must embrace strategic partnerships around the world and position itself to combat new and emerging transnational threats. Only in this way can the alliance maintain a global vision and impact, and thus remain relevant for the United States.

The Obama Administration has thrown its weight behind the New Strategic Concept, but Rasmussen's vision is insufficient on its own. The Strategic Concept must be accompanied by significant reforms and smarter investment in capabilities. At Lisbon, Obama will try to convince a sceptical Europe to keep spending levels as high as possible while investing more wisely, procuring systems together and strengthening inter-operability. Moreover, Obama will push ahead on NATO reform by seeking commitment to rethink the command structure. Transforming the command structure headquarters and geographical commitments is a necessary step to make the structure more agile, flexible and responsive. Ultimately, to remain relevant for the US and to live up to Daalder's vision of a NATO 3.0, command must be rapidly deployable and expeditionary in nature. A new NATO must be able to address threats arising in almost any part of the world with common capabilities and partnerships.

Missile Defence and Russia Reset

Missile defence is high on Obama's agenda as well as seeking backing from the allies for the phased adaptive missile defence systems. For the United States, missile defence is an essential capability for the Alliance. Obama will seek a broad political agreement from all of the allies that missile defence is an area where co-operation makes sense. If he can secure a NATO-wide commitment to co-operation in this area, the details can be worked out later and political sensitivities (especially with Turkey and Russia) can be worked through more slowly or addressed at a later stage. Anything more than a change in narrative or a broad political commitment is highly unlikely but if Medvedev were to consider co-operation on this issue, Obama could claim a major political and diplomatic victory not only in NATO-Russia relations but also because of the signal it would send to Iran.

The US is looking for a reset in NATO-Russia relations that mirrors the reset between Russia and the US and between Russia and some other European countries. After the Georgia War of 2008 and the subsequent freeze in relations, Obama would like to see the new dialogue with Russia transformed into a more enduring strategic partnership. NATO and Russia are working on a joint threat review, and it is hoped that the review will highlight mutual concerns and areas for co-operation. The hope is that once this is completed, Russia and NATO could enhance co-operation on counter-narcotics, training Afghan pilots and helicopter mechanics, logistics, the transit of equipment through Russia to Afghanistan and eventually on missile defence. Substantial progress is unlikely because of sensitivities in Europe and in Russia but Obama will achieve a victory if he can change the narrative or set the relationship on a new path.

A New Transatlantic Agenda?

This Lisbon Summit will see three gatherings: a meeting of the Heads of Government for the twenty-eight nations of NATO; a gathering of those countries contributing to efforts in Afghanistan; and a broader US-EU Summit. President Obama will try to make progress in three key areas: Afghanistan, NATO and Russia. He is unlikely to make any substantive achievements on any of these issues beyond aligning perspectives, changing narratives or securing broad political agreements with follow on studies down the road. Obama would be wiser to think more strategically or more creatively about America's relations with Europe.

President Obama needs to reset the transatlantic relationship and define a new agenda that resonates for both sides, leverages one another's political, economic and military capabilities, and goes beyond security. Trade between the US and Europe is essential to both economies, with around four trillion US dollars flowing between them every year, and so there is a vested interest on both sides of the Atlantic. It is therefore critical for them to improve co-operation on cyber issues, combating extremism, and promoting shared values. In addition to making progress on NATO, Afghanistan and Russia, Obama would be wise to send a clear message to Europe that a close relationship with the US is still essential for both sides. The Strategic Concept will not be satisfying and Obama will not be able to produce deliverables, but he may still win a foreign policy victory if he can reset relations with Europe and define a compelling agenda for a new transatlantic partnership.

*The views expressed in this article are not the views of the Royal United Services Institute, but are the views of the author*


[1] NATO, Afghanistan and Russia, Ivo Daalder, speech, New America Foundation Washington DC, (29 October 2010).

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