As luck would have it, for the last ten days, just as the Obama Administration was upending America’s global relationships, I was in Europe and attended two conferences on international politics. Together these conferences gave a good cross section of opinion about Mr. Obama and the U.S. in policy centers around the world. It proved not what you would expect.
The first conference was the annual Global Security Review of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. It was held in Geneva two weekends ago and brought together current and former senior foreign policy officials, journalists and scholars from around the world.
The second took place this past weekend in Stockholm and commemorated “The 20th Anniversary of the Liberated and Reunited Europe.” Its sponsors were the Swedish free market think tank Timbro and the Institute for Information on the Crimes of Communism. Speakers included the former prime minister of Estonia, a prominent Polish editor and fellow dissident with Lech Walesa during the Solidarity years, and the current editor-in-chief of Radio Free Europe and, with another speaker, speechwriter for Prime Minister Thatcher. I was there to talk about President Reagan.
The first conference ended days before the announcement of that the United States was cancelling the missile deal with Poland and the Czech Republic, the second was held the day after.
* The most surprising constant of this most mainstream of global policy gatherings was the wide skepticism about President Obama. Mr. Obama is four times as popular around the world as was President Bush, said one globally prominent journalist. But, the journalist continued, Machiavelli said it is better to be feared than loved; Mr. Obama is loved.
* I doubt that any delegate other than myself would have preferred George W. Bush making U.S. global policy decisions. But the disquiet came down to an impression of Mr. Obama that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is said to have offered to a private gathering some months ago (apparently leaking is as much a pastime in Paris as Washington), that Mr. Obama is weak.
* Putting together a remark here and an aside there, the impression emerged for me that Mr. Obama’s riveting rhetoric is in danger of turning from a plus to a minus, at least in very senior global policymaking circles. His language, many thought, is not anchored in reality. One former foreign minister only recently out of office made a disparaging reference to pointless rhetoric “no matter how elegantly expressed.”
* Unease was particularly pronounced regarding U.S. relations with Russia.
* Looking over my notes, I wonder if one Russian plenary session panelist might not have known at the time (as I said, several days before the announcement) that the Polish-Czech missile deal would be cancelled this week. He was based in Moscow but worked for an American think tank. He asserted that, despite their protests, the Russians were not so concerned about missiles in Poland. What they really feared, he said, were thousands of sea-based interceptors. The Administration has trumpeted sea-based and other mobile systems as the substitute for the program they are cancelling. Was this remark to soften the reaction of U.S. allies to the Obama decision? Or was it to signal that the Russian gimme list runs longer than a land-based defensive missile installation and a radar site?
* Whether he had foreknowledge or not, this speaker also noted that Russia saw three threats coming from the U.S.: 1) ballistic missile defense; 2) precision guided weapons; 3) NATO enlargement.
* The president’s announcement took care of number one and almost surely had an impact on number three. For the first time ever, Central European governments may now doubt whether NATO membership is such a good idea.
* One other observation from Geneva: We hear this a lot, but it is surprising to see it so personally. In dozens of ways, small and large, nations around the world look to the U.S. for leadership. Again and again discussions turned to the need for American direction on this or that matter. We cannot underestimate the ramifications of the United States ceasing to be a trusted compass and partner.
* As the conference was adjourning, I made a list of those countries that (judging by the speakers from them) were uneasy about a confusion or weakness in America. They included Japan, India, Israel (of course), the Palestinians (surprising), France (equally surprising), Britain, and anyone focused on the global economy. Who wanted American wings pinned back? The Russians.
* As you might imagine, the White House announcement surprised and concerned almost everyone at this conference.
* The general view was that Central European confidence in the United States as a reliable ally and guarantor against a return of Russian hegemony would be shattered.
* Whatever the technical advantages or disadvantages of one missile system or another, the missiles were seen as a political fact even more than as a military fact. And as a political fact, the cancellation of the deployment was considered alarming.
* The question was asked of a panel of speakers: Do you believe the White House knew that they were announcing the decision on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland? Of course, one said. But another doubted it, thought that historical knowledge in this White House doesn’t run deep. The suspicion was voiced that the Russians suggested the date and the Administration walked into the trap.
* Another former official observed that the Russians are playing with a losing demographic and economic hand: declining ethnic Russian population; rising populations of other groups; alcoholism everywhere. Yes, a knowledgeable veteran of the Cold War said, and that’s why they are pushing to reestablish elements of empire – to get a base capable of sustaining a military effort that once more could be topping 25 percent of GDP.
* The conference superstar was Mark Laar, former prime minister of Estonia and historian. He argued that the Soviet Union would have fallen in 1953 with the East German uprising or in 1956 with the Hungarian one. Both times, he said, rebellions had started in the other nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltic. But with no help from the West, they could not succeed. The difference in the years before the Soviet collapse, he added, was leadership: most notably Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. Repeatedly, he emphasized that leadership matters. It was hard to miss the implication that the West suffers from a leadership deficit today.