President Obama’s European Trip, PART I: New Energy, New Initiatives, and Many Challenges Yet to Come

Obama and PutinPresident Obama’s substance filled and bold trip to Europe was more than the norm and showed a re-energized, focused, and innovative administration in foreign affairs. This is against a global landscape which, at the moment, can only be described as filled with difficulties, great dangers, and complexity in a host of explosive problem areas. This post will try to summarize quickly some of the highlights of the trip and its accomplishments, their meaning and the problems still ahead. More individual topics will follow in the coming days. Many of these topics, as well as the reactions of other countries to Obama’s bold stance to address a host of global challenges, will be examined.

In no particular order:


Despite the little change toward progress, Obama tried getting Russia to be more cooperative in achieving a true peace in Syria. Putin, as shown by his meeting with Prime Minister Cameron and his many statements on the topic was belligerent and negative, and also isolated from all of the other G-8 members. What was achieved was an agreement to at least try to go ahead with the Geneva II conference, but few experts think this will work. This means that arming of the opponents of Assad will likely go forward. The question now is whether it can help or is it too little and too late to make a difference, given the support of Iran, Russia and Hezbullah. Yet the White House has signaled that it is looking at new options and Secretary Kerry has reportedly argued for a more robust stance against the wishes of the US military.  There seems to be a growing consensus that more must be done.


Obama, both in his talks with Putin and in his bold Berlin speech, outlined his proposal to cut about one-third of the strategic nuclear arms of both sides. He also said that tactical nuclear weapons should be on the negotiating table. Russia maintains some 2,000 of these weapons, most of which are largely obsolete. We have 180 air-delivered nuclear bombs in Europe, which can be retired on a reciprocal basis. Agreement on nuclear arms could come without a full treaty.  He also called for a global ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Once more he said he would work for the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.  He also achieved agreement on a scaled down and more limited but important program of cooperation with Russia on destruction and security of nuclear weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union to replace the Nunn-Lugar expired agreement.       


This is one of the truly bold initiatives by Obama that has a transformative impact on the cooperation between North America and Europe. A joint announcement was made on the sidelines of the G-8 meeting and negations will start in Washington in a few weeks. These will not be easy, but if they can reach an agreement on most of the goals, the ties between America and our democratic allies in Europe will be strengthened and it will contribute hope for economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic. More on the meaning of this act in a future post.


There is little doubt that Obama intended this speech to both state a larger framework of American  foreign and security policy and goals, and to outline what he will work toward during his second term. He clearly decided on a bold, rather than a safe and modest approach.  He eloquently applied his morality and values to his specific policies and did so in ways to speak to German citizens (and to the world also). He emphasized the need for Germany to take a broader and more inclusive and global perspective. It was, in my opinion, a challenge to Chancellor Angela Merkel and her CDU party to recognize their larger responsibilities to the rest of Europe and globally.

The larger sub-text was that America was back as a strong global leader willing to take on the many challenges that the international community and the US faces. He called for cooperation and engagement by others. It was in some ways a call for a larger vision rather than a narrow and more selfish approach by both leaders and citizens. It was also a successful challenge to President Putin and his narrow global vision. In this way, it was just what is needed at this point when conflicts are widespread, when we are in a time of economic serious problems, and there is a tendency for extreme views and parties to dominate the debate.

But now comes the hard part of dealing with specific issues. Here a strong and innovative diplomacy from top to bottom will be needed. We must also add resources, rather than adhere to the efforts at home and abroad to cut diplomacy, foreign aid, and humanitarian assistance – to withdraw, and ignore, and be overwhelmed and endangered by the crises of our age.

More on this trip and the problems and opportunities of Obama’s speech and trip’s results in future blogs. 

(See full text of speech in our documents blog section)

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