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William Bradley

William Bradley

Posted: April 3, 2009 07:58 PM

Re-Setting the Geopolitical Table: How Obama's Big Trip Is Going

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President Barack Obama, at a town hall meeting in Strasbourg, France, acknowledged American "arrogance" and decried knee-jerk anti-Americanism in Europe and elsewhere.

One down, three to go. At a time when the geopolitical table is being reset, President Barack Obama is in the midst of a huge international tour. London's G-20 summit -- with several bilateral mini-summits having taken place on the side -- has concluded. The NATO summit is underway in France and Germany. Waiting not far off in the wings are the European Union summit in Prague and an intriguing summit in Turkey.

With NATO's future mission very unclear, I suspect the two most successful stops will be the first and the last.

The G-20 went well. Not as well as advertised, which is par for most any political course, but much better than most of the Gs -- 7, 8, or 20. This one, comprised of not seven or eight but 20 advanced economies, 19 nations plus the European Union, the largest members of which are also represented, came at a time in which the typical rhetorical inaction was unthinkable. So it got some things done, with Obama in the middle of it all.


At his joint press conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown kicking off the G-20 summit, Obama said, with regard to the global economic crisis: "Some are to blame, but all are responsible."

Obama didn't get the $2 trillion global stimulus program that he and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown reportedly wanted, but they did get over a trillion dollars to shore up small developing nations and provide a boost to larger struggling economies like those of Mexico and Eastern Europe.

There are new financial regulations, too, dealing with corporate tax havens and hedge funds, but they are well short of the centralized global regime that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was pushing for. Instead, there is a Financial Stability Board which will monitor, but not actually police high-flying transnational finance operations, leaving it up to national governments to take real action. If they can.

It's a lot more than what's existed in the past, and certainly an affront to the laissez-faire uber alles crowd, but hardly a new full-scale regime.

In fact, Obama himself interceded when things became hot between Sarkozy and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Sarkozy wanted to include a European report naming tax havens, including the big ones in China, in the G-20 closing document. Obama got the two to agree to a reference to the European report rather than its inclusion.


Obama had a successful mini-summit meeting in London with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who referred afterward to the US president as "my comrade." Obama goes to Moscow for a full-scale summit meeting in July.

Obama's mini-summits in London, with the leaders of Russia, China, and India, seemed to go well. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to continued forbearance with Pakistan in the wake of last Thanksgiving's terrorist siege of Mumbai. Chinese President Hu Jintao was calm about Obama ordering Navy destroyers to protect US surveillance operations in the South China Sea, and agreed to a summit sometime last this year. The two agreed to set up a closer ongoing consultative process, with the country's respective foreign and finance ministers meeting at least twice a year. The first meeting will be in Washington in July. Most notably, Obama seemed to hit it off with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. The two agreed to reduce nuclear weapons, and Obama will go to Moscow for a full-scale summit meeting in July.

Then there was the celebrity factor, which in Obama's case is huge. The Indian prime minister asked for Obama's autograph. For his daughter. The British and European press are going wild for him, as the Friday morning town hall in Strasbourg, France made clear. And Michelle Obama, a formidable and attractive lawyer, is getting Jackie Kennedy-style coverage as an unlikely fashion icon pitted, in typical conventional media style, against France's first lady, former supermodel Carla Bruni.

But now things get a little tougher.


Obama declared NATO "the most successful alliance in modern history." But its ongoing purpose is cloudy on its 60th anniversary.

The NATO summit is definitely tougher. For starters, what is the mission of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? You could easily say it's already achieved its mission, nearly two decades ago.

This weekend is NATO's 60th anniversary. Founded in the aftermath of World War II, with much of Western Europe afraid that a then ascending Soviet Union would come blasting through the Fulda Gap, it's not clear what NATO's raison d'etre is in the 21st century.

Since the collapse of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact alliance, NATO has been an organization in search of a mission. But aside from intervening fairly successfully in various nasty ethnic clashes in the Balkans -- and infuriating Russia by expanding to its borders -- it hasn't done much since the fall of the Berlin Wall, that menacing symbol which exists now only in the form of shards for Cold War collectors.

Now it's heavily involved in Afghanistan, action triggered by the Al Qaeda attack on NATO member America on 9/11. But with the exception of the British, and some Canadian and Dutch units, American forces have taken on the bulk of the actual fighting.

And while Obama would like to get more troops from other NATO nations into the soon-to-be stepped-up fight there, only Britain and Australia say they will send more combat troops. And Australia isn't a part of NATO.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is ending his country's policy dating back to Charles De Gaulle of staying out of NATO's actual command structure, said today that he is all for Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also endorsed Obama's new plans, he seems likely only to send more civilian aid and provide more training for Afghanistan's army and police.

Which is only part of what Obama's looking for.

Then there is the Russian question. It has been NATO policy to expand its membership not only into the old Warsaw Pact but right up to Russia's borders. An anti-missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, pushed by the Bush/Cheney Administration has been endorsed. There doesn't seem to be any consensus on those moves now, especially with Obama exploring a new relationship with Moscow.

Is there a future for NATO?

To disband NATO now would seem an abandonment of Central and Eastern European members fearful of a resurgent Russia. But even a resurgent Russia seems hardly the threat that the old Soviet Union was. With its own financial problems given the sharp declines in the price of oil, Russia is more a renewed great power than a superpower. It seems to bear more potential gifts -- with regard to support in Afghanistan, and with Iran -- than real threats, at least for America.

So NATO will continue, at least for a time. As it does, and as it provides what it will to serve American interests, the Obama Administration is looking for new emphases in its alliances.

Obama gives a major speech on cutting nuclear weapons in Prague, where he attends the European Union summit -- with many of the same characters he will have seen for several days running -- following the NATO summit. That might help assuage former Warsaw Pact members, free from the old Soviet empire, who fear a resurgent Moscow.


Obama declared London's G-20 summit "a turning point" in global economic recovery. But his visit to Ankara may prove the most important of his summits.

But it's Obama's closing summit, in Ankara, Turkey, which may hold the real breakthroughs in re-setting the table of geopolitics.

Turkey is a member of NATO. But the European Union won't let it in. A Muslim nation, Turkey is arguably the most powerful militarily and the most balanced economically in the Islamic world, and perhaps the most stable.

In the new emerging Obama conception of geopolitics, it may be that it is Turkey, strategically situated on the Bosporus, which provides even more needed help with Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as a watchful counterweight to Russia.

Turkey is already throwing its weight around in NATO, trying to block the accession of the French and German candidate to be the alliance's new secretary-general. After we see how that goes, and how Obama plays it, next week's Obama visit to Ankara -- which includes a roundtable discussion with Turkish students -- may be the most intriguing of all.


You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.