Obama’s Five Challenges at Lisbon

On Friday, President Obama will convene with NATO and E.U. leaders in Lisbon. These summit meetings take place as the trans-Atlantic community is beleaguered by the war in Afghanistan, financial crises, and an increasing sense that the United States and Europe are drifting apart. If the president is to reinvigorate trans-Atlantic solidarity and U.S. leadership, he will have to accomplish five interrelated objectives at these meetings.

First, President Obama must demonstrate unambiguous determination to prevail in Afghanistan. What has been a year of increasing Western forces is instead regarded as a year of European withdrawals and media accounts of a U.S. president focused solely on bringing American troops home. Without a clear U.S. commitment to win, one cannot expect Europe to sustain or increase its contributions to this important mission.

The president’s emphasis on “transition,” intended to convey progress through the transfer of responsibility and burden to the Afghan government, does not convey a commitment to win. It is inescapably imbued with the odor of withdrawal, if not retreat. It reinforces the insurgency’s confidence, and makes allies and partners question not only their sacrifices of blood and treasure, but also the value of NATO and U.S. leadership. A forcefully articulated resolve to defeat the Taliban is the needed complement to the West’s long-term commitment to Afghan political and economic development.

Second, the president must reaffirm Europe’s centrality in U.S. global strategy. The drifting apart of the two continents has many causes, but they include the Obama administration’s failure to present a trans-Atlantic agenda that goes much beyond Afghanistan and its vaguely defined “reset” of relations with Russia.

Europe has been left with the impression that America views it as increasingly irrelevant to U.S. interests in the world at large. Yet, Europe and America are each stronger global players when they act together. Globalization has increased the need to leverage jointly their respective political, economic and military capabilities.

With regard to the last point, at Lisbon the president should announce a decision to keep U.S. military forces based in Europe at their current levels, approximately 80,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. His administration promised to issue plans for the U.S. military presence in Europe after the roll-out of NATO’s new Strategic Concept. Some in Washington, particularly those eager to slash the U.S. defense budget, are calling for the withdrawal of some 30,000 American forces.

Keeping the U.S. military presence at its already historically low level would preserve the foundation of the U.S.-European security relationship. These forces are highly effective, low-cost force multipliers. They facilitate the training, planning and relationships essential for U.S. and European forces to fight together effectively in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Such a decision would convey a powerful demonstration of U.S. commitment to the trans-Atlantic community.

Third, the president needs to re-establish the vision of a Europe whole, free and secure as a guiding priority for the trans-Atlantic relationship. Few in Europe see the United States defining a clear path toward eventual Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO and the European Union. The abandonment of this vision has strategic consequences. It undercuts those in Georgia and Ukraine who see their future in Europe. It reinforces Kremlin aspirations for a sphere of influence, a dynamic that undercuts those in Russia who wish for a democratic future and a constructive Russian role in world affairs.

As has been the case with Poland and other Central European states, the integration of Georgia and Ukraine into these institutions would contribute to the normalization of Russia’s relations with its neighbors. This imperative has been a missing element of a truly effective Russia reset policy.

Fourth, NATO leaders must mitigate exaggerated expectations about the new Strategic Concept. Previous strategic concepts have been developed with discretion and little fanfare. Earliest editions were classified. The alliance over-hyped the development of this document. Because it is a public statement requiring consensus by 28 member states, its language is unlikely to be sufficiently dramatic to generate greater public appreciation for NATO. Such appreciation has never been determined by diplomatic documents but by U.S, leadership and commitment and the alliance’s actions.

Fifth, President Obama must chart the alliance’s way forward in an era of financial austerity. The financial crisis precipitated defense budget cuts across NATO. This era promises to be prolonged and could unleash divisive, competitive dynamics that undercut unity and military capability. Lisbon should provide a defense-capability roadmap that leverages austerity to drive long overdue strategic prioritization, innovation and collaboration. The absence of such a roadmap is sure to deny NATO the military capabilities that are the substance of truly viable Strategic Concept.

The Lisbon meetings present an urgent and complex set of challenges. How they are managed will define President Obama’s leadership in the trans-Atlantic community as well as NATO’s relevance in the 21st century.

Ian J. Brzezinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and leads the Brzezinski Group, a consulting firm.