Amid Russia crisis, Obama reluctantly 'pivots' back to Europe

President Obama has turned away from Europe during his presidency, but if he is going to have any success in isolating Russia, he'll need to work hard to reestablish European ties.

Sean Gallup/AP
President Obama attends the opening session of the nuclear summit in The Hague, the Netherlands, Monday. Leaders will also discuss efforts to isolate Russia following its incursion into Ukraine.

President Obama has hardly been a “transatlantic” president. His administration has “pivoted” to Asia, turning away from the Europe-focused mindset of many earlier presidents and showing a dislike of the clubby summits that had become a mainstay of US-Europe relations.

But now, Mr. Obama has some catching up to do. The Ukraine crisis has brought Europe back to the center of US foreign policy concerns, and a long-planned trip to Europe this week for a summit on nuclear security has become something more consequential: A chance for the US and Europe to work together on Russia.

Already, at Mr. Obama’s urging, the Group of Seven nations on Monday suspended Russia’s participation and moved the group’s June meeting from Sochi, Russia, to Brussels. But if Obama is going to get Europe to commit to further penalties against Russia for invading and annexing Crimea, he is going to have to make a deep commitment to ramping up transatlantic diplomacy, analysts say.

Much of Western Europe is frustrated with the US, disappointed in Obama’s record, and suspicious of his foreign policy priorities. Motivating European leaders to move with unity on Russia “is going to require an enormous amount of American leadership in Europe, [something] we have not seen for the last five years,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “This is exactly the moment, as historically has been the case, that the United States needs to exert strong leadership within the transatlantic alliance.”

This week’s trip is Obama’s first to Brussels – arguably the capital of Europe, where both the European Union (EU) and NATO are headquartered. He will take part in a US-EU summit – something he has not approached with enthusiasm in the past – and he is scheduled to deliver a major policy speech.

Some question how much Obama can really accomplish. For example, NATO’s debates about America’s transatlantic commitment and the alliance’s post-cold war purpose have been going on “roughly speaking, forever,” says former Obama administration official Jeremy Shapiro.

NATO’s struggles suggest “a sort of structural problem which transcends the presidency, and which I don’t think has to do with the personality of the president,” says Mr. Shapiro, now a visiting fellow in foreign policy at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

But others note that Europe has long required American leadership to move forward on crises in its own backyard – such as the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Organizing similar unity on Ukraine today will be more difficult, because many of possible economic measures to punish Russia will require more sacrifice from Europe than from the US.

On Monday, after a meeting in Amsterdam with Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte, Obama insisted that Europe and America “are united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far.”  

But Russia plays a significantly larger role in the European economy – especially as an energy supplier – than in the US economy.

“It’s going to take an enormous amount of personal time for the president working with [European] leaders” to get tougher sanctions rolling, says Ms. Conley of CSIS.

She suggests that European companies, in particular, are going to resist “painful” measures. Many are still affected by the lingering effects of a deep economic crisis.

Obama will have to demonstrate that the US is ready to pay a part of the price, Conley says.

But European leaders have been alarmed by the implications of Russia’s unchallenged actions in Ukraine, and they are prepared for some “burden-sharing,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at Brookings who has been meeting with officials in Western Europe. 

Shaken by Obama’s plans to “pivot” America’s interests toward Asia and his perceived lack of interest in the EU, European leaders are eager to engage Obama. This is especially true, since Europeans are broadly more comfortable with Obama’s foreign-policy approach than that of President George W. Bush, says Ms. Cofman Wittes. They recognize that a more modest America abroad means Europe might have to pick up more of the burden at times.

The “costs” that the US and Europe aim to impose on Russia will be “difficult…and contentious,” Cofman Wittes says.

But “I have not heard a lot of complaining about American leading from behind or stepping back or being weak,” she adds. “There’s a great deal of appreciation here still of the fact that this is a more self-restrained superpower than the behavior that they saw under the last US president.”

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