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Center for American Progress

The United States’ Role in European Security Under the Obama Administration

The United States’ Role in European Security Under the Obama Administration

Reset with Russia and Reassurance for Allies Provide Key Security Dividends

Samuel Charap reviews key changes under President Obama that have led to improved security in Europe.

President Barack Obama addresses a crowd in Prague on April 5, 2009. The charge that the Obama administration has abandoned Europe ignores several steps the administration has taken that improved Europe's security, including the "reset" with Russia. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama addresses a crowd in Prague on April 5, 2009. The charge that the Obama administration has abandoned Europe ignores several steps the administration has taken that improved Europe's security, including the "reset" with Russia. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

There are three summits—NATO, NATO-Russia, and EU-U.S.—set to take place in Lisbon later this week, which makes now an appropriate time to step back and examine the state of European security and the role of the United States in it over the past two years. Such an exercise is all the more timely in light of the press’s persistent hyperventilation over this subject, which reached a farcical extreme last month with an International Herald Tribune columnist asking: “Will the U.S. Lose Europe to Russia?

This abandonment narrative is profoundly misleading. It alleges that the United States has neglected Europe when in fact on the ground the Obama administration has engaged on key issues and pushed key policy shifts that have directly boosted Europe’s security. It also reflects a zero-sum understanding of security on the continent—a fundamental misreading of post-Cold War international political dynamics. Specifically, it ignores the fact that a hostile relationship between the United States and Russia is itself perhaps the greatest threat to European security.

Let’s examine the situation before President Barack Obama took office in 2009. At that point, the new democracies of Central Europe as well as Ukraine and Georgia occupied a prized place in Washington’s diplomatic hierarchy. The Bush administration went out of its way to publicly champion these countries as poster children for the freedom agenda. The countries reciprocated with a willingness to actively support the Bush administration’s policies, specifically the war in Iraq in 2003, so-called rendition and clandestine interrogation of terrorist suspects, and the deployment of the third-site missile defense components in Central Europe. Such moves in turn won them lots of attention: phone calls were promptly returned; visitors to Washington were received at senior levels wherever they requested meetings; and top U.S. policymakers regularly travelled to the region.

It’s fair to say that this level of attention was more a reward for solidarity than a reflection of the region’s actual importance to U.S. national security given the locus and severity of the global problems we face. Moreover, this “attention” actually came at the expense of European security since it was so closely linked with the complete deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations.

This linkage paradoxically caused many—especially in Central Europe but also in Western Europe and in the United States—to conclude that there is a necessary zero-sum relationship between U.S. ties with Russia and its relationships with European allies near Russia. In other words, since the close ties to Central Europe corresponded with the rise in U.S.-Russia tensions, if Washington improved relations with Moscow, it would by definition downgrade its relations with Central and Eastern Europe.

There certainly were some issues that were zero sum in terms of the U.S. relationship with Russia and its European engagement. These included the third-site missile defense plan and accelerated NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. Moreover, several senior officials in the Bush administration seemed intent on recreating the bipolar world order they had grown so accustomed to during the Cold War. The most prominent example was Vice President Dick Cheney, who famously referred to the Baltic states as the "very front lines of freedom in the modern world."

But if we look at Europe in a global context, it becomes clear that a zero-sum equation between the quality of the U.S.-Russia relationship and U.S. commitment to European security makes no sense. Hostile relations between Washington and Moscow—and we now know that a direct military response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia was considered in the Bush White House in August 2008, so hostile is no exaggeration—represent perhaps the single most destabilizing factor for the security of Europe. So let’s be clear: The notion that the United States provided greater security for Europe when the U.S.-Russia relationship rapidly disintegrated in the later years of the Bush administration is a fallacy.

U.S. actions vis-à-vis Russia also have a critical indirect impact on European security since the character of post-Soviet Russia’s relations with the world is significantly shaped by its relationship with the United States. To put it simply, then-President Vladimir Putin’s infamous anti-Western Munich speech in 2007 would have been impossible without the growing antagonism in U.S.-Russia relations under Bush—just as Dmitry Medvedev’s July 2010 speech calling for modernization alliances with Europe and the United States would have been impossible without Obama’s reset.

This phenomenon directly affects Europe’s security. At the height of U.S.-Russia tension under Bush, the region experienced gas cutoffs, cyberattacks, the resumption of Russian strategic bomber air patrols along the Norwegian coast, and of course the August 2008 war. The fact that a U.S. military response to the Russian invasion of Georgia was even contemplated should send shivers down European spines because the Russian response would likely have had an impact on them, too.

The Obama administration’s reset, then, actually alleviated perhaps the gravest threat to European security: conflict between Russia and the West. And Russian behavior has changed significantly in the past two years. The rapprochement between Russia and Poland is but the most marked example of a broader emphasis on greater cooperation coming out of Moscow.

It is far too early to call this a paradigm shift, however. Russia has not transformed into an enlightened constructive international actor overnight—far from it. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that conflict between Moscow and Washington would have been catastrophic and that the changes in Russia’s behavior are important. U.S.-Russia cooperation to head off a second conflict in Georgia in August 2009 and constructive Russian behavior on Armenia-Turkey rapprochement are just two examples.

In short, the reset has provided a net security gain for Europe. This is to say nothing of the broader gains that Europe has received indirectly through renewed joint U.S.-Russia efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program, facilitate operations in Afghanistan, and control the spread of nuclear materials that have come out of the Russia reset.

Additionally, the Obama administration, both through NATO and bilaterally, has directly boosted Central Europe’s security in an informal policy known as reassurance, making the abandonment charge seem all the more strange. A little-noticed call from Obama in his April 2009 Prague speech—which was before Obama had first gone to Moscow—and a subsequent behind-the-scenes push from the administration led to the Baltic states and Poland receiving the most concrete security commitment from NATO they could ask for: contingency plans within the alliance against an external attack, which reportedly involve a U.S. carrier group. This commitment came just over a year after the Bush administration failed to get a similar deal through Brussels.

The administration has also upped U.S. military presence in the region. Back in June, 500 Marines and two F-15s led by the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, for a NATO exercise. And last month, more than 2,000 personnel from the three Baltic states and the United States conducted another exercise in Latvia—the largest in the region since the three countries joined the alliance in 2004.

Despite incessant claims that Obama’s missile defense plan is both a sop to the Russians and an abandonment of Central Europe, his Phased Adaptive Approach is a system that is both proven and designed to protect all of Europe from medium-range missiles from Iran—a threat the Pentagon believes to be quite real. Compare that to the Bush-era plan, which was based on unproven technology, did not actually protect the European continent (it was meant to protect against a missile heading over the north pole), and was intended to counteract long-range missiles that no one besides missile defense theologians believe to be a realistic threat in the Iranian case. It’s hard to see how the Obama plan could be interpreted as anything but a boost to Central Europe’s security.

If the United States hasn’t abandoned Europe the only conclusion one can draw is that the improvement of U.S.-Russia relations in itself has been interpreted by some as a betrayal. Essentially, those who complain about abandonment are indirectly asking the Obama administration to rekindle hostility with Moscow—that is, to recreate a significant threat to European security. That’s really quite a bizarre request to ask from Europe’s closest ally.

Samuel Charap is Associate Director for Russia and Eurasia and a member of the National Security and International Policy team at American Progress.

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