NATO’s Future Rises to Focus of US Presidential Election 2016?

Photo Credit: NATO Facebook Page

NATO was critical to the shaping of the “new Europe” two decades earlier after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Similar and new challenges have emerged where once again NATO may be a defining factor in the future of Europe as well as the Euro-Atlantic family. The Administration of Bill Clinton, Republican Congressional leaders, and civil society, (see AEI, Atlantic Council, Brookings, Open Society Institute, etc.), pressed for more inclusive European institutions. NATO enlargement served to boost security for post-Soviet democracies but also became a fulcrum to further EU enlargement. While then-French President Mitterrand sought to sideline NATO, it ultimately played a decisive role in addressing the conflict in Bosnia & Herzegovina as well as helping define Europe. My colleague Sebastian Aulich, of Poland, (@SebastianAulich) evaluates the potential Republican hopefuls while I take a look at the Democrats who may lead the future of NATO as well as emerge as US President in 2016.

Look at a Broad Republican Field Jockeying for a Distinct Message & Leadership (by Sebastian Aulich):

powitanie-zajawka.640x300The GOP field as never before looks very competitive. It could be the strongest primary season in recent history with an epic battle between two powerful political dynasties: the Bushes and the Romneys. Ironically, though, neither Jeb Bush nor Mitt Romney possess serious qualifications in foreign policy. Their worldview is influenced by their families and close advisors. The best qualified Republican, Jon Huntsman Jr., is not running in 2016. While only Marco Rubio brings some experience to the table thanks to his service on the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations. Chris Christie is reported to be educating himself on international relations during evening phone calls with some experts. Rick Perry had flown academics and advisors to Texas to get himself ready. Ted Cruz traveled to Eastern Europe and met with Poland’s Minister of Defense, Tomasz Siemoniak, to discuss geopolitical situation in the Ukraine and NATO’s eastern flank. Rand Paul has entered a psychological battle with himself to reconcile his libertarian views with America’s strategic interests abroad. So far he has not emerged victorious and his ideas on foreign policy are more or less isolationist and harmful to America’s interests. Paul’s recent announcement that he would like to see the United Nations dissolved speaks for itself: something that Paul does not understand should disappear.

Judging by Romney’s recent speech at the RNC’s Winter Meeting, his third attempt at the presidency would be predominantly about foreign policy and (surprisingly) income inequality.  In his March 2010 book “No Apology”, Romney drew a very comprehensive and sensible vision for America’s foreign policy. And to his credit he has not flip-flopped on it even after being brutally criticized by the Obama campaign as being out-of-date. It’s unclear whether Romney spent time building his own sophistication in foreign affairs or it was a product of his experienced advisors. One is certain: President Romney would be heavily tested by Putin. Situation in the Ukraine poses enormous threat to NATO and the next President would need to unite fragmented EU to vigorously defend Alliance’s interests. Can Romney do it? He is a realist and pragmatist, but America has no direct interests in the Ukraine (although it may have in the future) therefore a U.S. policy in Europe would require an approach based not only on pragmatism but also on strong principles.

Jeb Bush is a bigger question mark. He has not presented any foreign policy agenda yet. Nevertheless, he comes from a family of politicians, who traditionally strongly supported NATO in Europe. His election would be likely cheered in many Eastern European countries. Bush would be unlikely to press any reset buttons with Putin and might even revert to his brother’s plan for the antimissile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, which was dropped by Obama in 2009. Whether that’s a realistic assumption, remains to be seen. No doubt, any idea of reinstituting the plan would put an enormous pressure on Russia and could be more damaging than sanctions.

Marco Rubio already spoke about his vision of NATO in Europe. In his March 2014 article in the “Washington Post,” he schooled Obama on what should be done. And he may be right on many things in that respect, however Europe is not his cup of tea. He wrote that Putin should be punished or otherwise the annexation of Crimea would establish a dangerous precedent with global repercussions. While the truth is that the precedent was already established a long time ago. Russia has been conducting its foreign policy by preemptively annexing and occupying territories of other countries for centuries. Nothing has changed here. It’s not about preventing a legal precedent, but about providing a real and timely protection to the NATO countries.

Do Democrats Need to be Reminded of Importance of NATO to US & European Security? (by Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey)

Much credit should go to Bill Clinton’s Administration for NATO expansion and the EU integration that such helped encourage in the post Berlin Wall era. Consequently, this would seem to portend well for NATO and its relevance in a potential Hillary Clinton Presidency. The case though is more nuanced looking back and forward. The bipartisan support for NATO and EU enlargement was led in the late 1990’s by then-Senator Joe Biden, Secretary of State (and my counterpart as the US Ambassador to UN) Madeleine Albright, and NATO Supreme Commander General Wes Clark as well as Republican leaders who actively participated in shaping an inclusive policy toward the new Europe. Under the Clinton Presidency as well as the subsequently Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led US State Department, there was also an overt tilt toward not offending Russia’s wounded pride. Some saw the opportunity to engage Russia as a partner but from the outset this may have had exactly the opposite impact, from the resolution to the war and genocide in the Balkans, to failure to resolve the conflict in Syria, (now providing fertile ground for ISIS), to the yet-burning conflict in Ukraine. Efforts have been made to “press the reset button” with Moscow, but the current uninterrupted and dictatorial lineage within the Kremlin has misappropriated the opportunity to nurture its own narrative in arenas as Chechnya and Central Asia while discouraging NATO in places from Georgia to Bosnia & Herzegovina. (See: “Economic Warfare the Theme for 2015? Sends Russia Ruble into Financial Rubble?”)

An alternative narrative has been more recently adopted by some on the American left – that Ukraine and the emergence of a new Cold War are the consequence of an assertive NATO expansion. However, the question that should be asked to what degree have former Soviet states still within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence evolved toward more democratic or free societies? Would the new democracies, from Poland to Lithuania to Romania be now subject to even greater provocation by an assertive Vladimir Putin committed to reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union and establish a new dominion under an imperial flag resurrecting old nationalist, ethnic and religious flames? While blame in Bosnia & Herzegovina or Serbia for a lagging European economic, political and human rights integration may in part be placed upon domestic and regional politics, the Kremlin’s proxies have actively discouraged adoption of Euro-Atlantic values as well as institutions. (See: “Construction According to Putin’s Model, from Bosnia to Europe?”)

General Wes Clark has correctly summarized that while ISIS is an imminent threat, the greater challenge comes from a Putin-led Russia even as the western democracies are preoccupied with terror and extremism. The European project needs a revitalized definition and progress, but the threats from within and outside have been distractions. It is no coincidence that extremist right-wing parties including Marie Le Pen’s National Front have received direct support from the Kremlin and proxies, including “loans.” The immediate threat Putin faced is not so much NATO expansion but Ukraine integration into the EU with all the complementary political and human rights values considerations as well as greater economic independence from the Russian Federation.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, and Governor Martin O’Malley are among a broad array of potential Democratic candidates to the current overwhelming favorite Hillary Clinton. Within the party the greatest debate is on issues of internal US policy, from income inequality to regulatory treatment of US business. Current VP Joe Biden appears to be the most visible with a track record regarding foreign policy. If viewed from this perspective, NATO’s relevance would appear to be at the top of the agenda. However, US Presidential politics frequently devolves; and discussing international relations produces glazed eyes rather than enthusiasm, or worse becomes risky as venturing through a landmine field. Democrats do not lack their own foreign policy experts, and to the contrary are less inclined toward isolationism than a significant segment of the Republican base. NATO is more relevant than it has been since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. However, this relevance may be given form by a cadre of established and/or rising advisers/practitioners: General Wes Clark and Ambassador Morton Abramowitz, Ambassador Samantha Power, or … someone yet to emerge from what for the moment appears a stratified forum.



PHOTO/ WO Artur Zakrzewski/Public Information Dept., MOD: Defence Minister Tomasz Siemoniak with US Senator Ted Cruz


About the Author

Muhamed Sacirbey
Muhamed Sacirbey
Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey currently lectures on Digital-Diplomacy. "Mo" has benefited from a diverse career in investment banking & diplomacy, but his passion has been the new avenues of communication. He was Bosnia & Herzegovina's first Ambassador to the United Nations, Agent to the International Court of Justice, Foreign Minister & Signatory of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. He also played American football opting for a scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans after being admitted to Harvard, oh well!!
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