Exclusive to the Trib: Obama in Europe — Leadership matters but its absence matters more
Barack Obama's trip to Europe last week for D-Day's 70th anniversary provided yet another manifestation of his failed leadership.
Ronald Reagan's memorable 1984 visit to Normandy stands in sharp contrast. Reagan came as the free world's unquestioned leader, locked in mortal struggle against global Communism, whereas Obama is a smaller-than-life figure — weak, indecisive and now sinking under the Bergdahl prisoner-swap controversy. Our NATO alliance lies in disarray. Russian belligerence is growing. And Obama seems increasingly detached. There is one other difference: Reagan's D-Day speech will long be remembered, Obama's quickly forgotten.
Until recently, we believed that victory in World War II and the demise of the Soviet Union eliminated military aggression as a component in shaping Europe's destiny. No longer. In Ukraine, the West allowed force to prevail, as Vladimir Putin marched into Crimea, changing international borders by annexing it to Russia. Moscow did something similar to Georgia in 2008, breaking off two provinces and subsuming them under Russian control.
Because of Obama's weak leadership — and the even greater weakness of NATO's European members — Putin recouped much of the influence Russia lost when a popular uprising overthrew Ukraine's pro-Moscow Yanukovich government. Russia has also struck a substantial blow against NATO's cohesion, whether fatal or just debilitating we do not yet know. Worse, Putin is undoubtedly drawing a dangerous conclusion: NATO is vulnerable to a determined Russian strategy of military, political and economic assertiveness.
Europe's other significant institution, the European Union, also is experiencing considerable stress and turmoil. Its currency, the euro, barely survived the financial crisis and is not immune from further pressure. The EU's political institutions and their most basic premises are under continent-wide criticism.
In recent European Parliament elections, the United Kingdom Independence Party won the largest number of votes in Britain; the National Front came in first in France; and populist parties of the right and the left scored significant electoral gains elsewhere. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland, which opposes the euro but not the EU itself, contesting its first election, did respectably, demonstrating that even in the EU's heart, criticism is rising. These protest parties, far from uniformly conservative in the American sense (some actually being pro-Russian), are each distinct national manifestations of discontent. Several have unmistakably repugnant racist and anti-Semitic elements.
But no one should underestimate the voter dissatisfaction they represent. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Labour Party leader, called these election results “a wake-up call to Europe and to Britain.” Blair said further “even among those who are in favor of Europe, there is a keen sense that the moment is right for Europe to think carefully about where it goes from here ….”
In many respects, Obama's failures and the EU's continuing crisis reflect common misperceptions shared both by Obama's vision of American foreign policy and by the EU worldview. This commonality is hardly surprising, since the ideological underpinnings of Europe's social democrats and Obama's own leftist inclinations are essentially the same. And also not coincidentally, electorates in both Europe and the United States are rejecting important premises of that ideological foundation. Our elections do not occur until November but all indications are that Obama's Democrat supporters are in deep trouble, due largely to his policies, both domestic and international.
In short, the West is going through a period of upheaval and uncertainty, not because of the strength of an external menace, but because of grave weaknesses in its own leaders and institutions. That is at least somewhat comforting because the capacity to fix these problems lies in our own hands, at least for now. The larger peril will arise if the United States and its allies do not act resolutely before existential threats materialize.
And here the problem is global. No country is watching the failure of America and Europe to stand effectively against Putin's belligerence more closely than China. Beijing's own assertive territorial and political claims in the East and South China Seas are directly comparable to Russian overreach in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, and the inadequacy of the West's response in Europe is embarrassingly visible to China's military leadership.
Proliferators of weapons of mass destruction — particularly Iran and North Korea — well understand that only an American-led coalition can stop the spread of nuclear weapons. And after five-plus years of Obama's presidency, there is precious little evidence that he understands the severity of the threat, let alone what to do about it.
Obama's European trip once again demonstrates that leadership matters and that its absence matters even more. We are in increasingly dangerous times and America's president is out of his depth, our most important alliance is palsied and our adversaries are increasingly bold. We can only hope that our failings do not expose us to another 9/11 before we are able to correct them.
John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.