President Obama’s flying visit to Lisbon this weekend resulted in a mixed bag of results. On a practical level, NATO made big strides in fashioning the transatlantic alliance for the 21st century. On a personal level however, President Obama did not succeed in turning this weekend’s summits into ones that prioritized new START.
By far and away, the most important of the three summits this weekend was the NATO heads-of-state summit. The alliance agreed its first Strategic Concept of the millennium, outlining NATO’s core purpose and tasks. The 2010 Strategic Concept, while far shorter than the last one, reinforced the core elements of transatlantic security including: affirmation that Article V remains the bedrock of the alliance; that so long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will be a nuclear alliance; and that missile defense should become a core competency of the alliance. The alliance pledged to integrate and upgrade NATO members’ missile defense capabilities, taking the first step toward a genuinely transatlantic-wide missile defense architecture. It is important that this policy is now translated into a concrete action plan, with members pledging hard commitments that fairly share the burden of common defense.
The NATO-Russia Council meeting was more symbolic than results-orientated, being the first meeting of the Council since Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008. Once again Russia and NATO pledged to work together on missile defense, although it remains to be seen exactly how this will translate into action. NATO and Russia concluded their year-long Joint Review of 21st Century Common Security Challenges and pledged steps to move forward on issues of mutual concern including counter-piracy; counter-narcotics and Afghanistan. It is eminently sensible for the two to work together on areas where there are joint threat assessments, although NATO must continue to make it clear that it explicitly rejects Russia’s sphere of privileged interest policy.
The EU’s determination to peg a 90-minute EU-U.S. summit on to the end of this weekend’s meetings reeked of desperation on Brussels’ part to be taken seriously. The EU’s commitment to pointless summitry is well known and President Obama rightly rejected an invitation to visit Madrid earlier this year, hence Brussels’ determination to take its’ road-show to Lisbon.
President Obama however is likely to walk away from this weekend disappointed that he did not make this weekend’s summit ones that focused on new START. Although NATO leaders and the NRC all publicly endorsed new START once again, the bilateral US-Russian treaty did not gain the traction that Obama wanted. Ultimately, the US Senate will decide on the Treaty and not the NATO allies; therefore they were right to make a statement on it and move on to the more important business of the weekend.
President Obama should however be grateful that his policy change on Afghanistan was so robustly endorsed—at so far little political cost to him. He has quietly but firmly moved away from his untenable policy of withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by July 2011, and instead committed to being there until at least 2014, with a large U.S. non-combat presence likely to remain long after that. This is a sea-change from the policy he laid out at West Point in December 2009, and demonstrates that he is listening to his military commanders and other NATO allies such as the UK.
President Obama took a far-more workman-like approach to this summit than previous transatlantic visits. Coming on the back of exhausting and difficult trips to South Korea and India, the President was unable to rouse European leaders into gushing endorsements of his personal political agenda. However, he did manage to make progress on major issues such as the future of NATO and Afghanistan, which are important to U.S. security interests. He will leave Lisbon therefore having done just enough to ensure tomorrow’s headlines aren’t negative.