Since 1997, the American Academy in Berlin has awarded the annual Henry A. Kissinger Prize “in recognition of outstanding services to the transatlantic relationship.” Taken literally, this means that the next recipient can only be one person: Vladimir Putin.
Just a few weeks ago, even the most committed Atlanticists would not have predicted a spectacular comeback for NATO in 2014. At this year’s Munich Security Conference, often dubbed the transatlantic partnership’s “family meeting”, the mood was quite pessimistic. [My detailed conference report, in German, will appear in the next issue of the Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik.] The Europeans, and especially the Germans, were upset about the fact that Senator Kerry gave a speech about the “transatlantic renaissance” without mentioning the NSA affair at all. As some observers noted, the Americans “just don’t listen to us anymore, they only listen in.”
On the other hand, the U.S. representatives were frustrated that the Europeans were not eager to discuss other topics they deemed more relevant. Again, the old burden-sharing debate resurfaced – but with more urgency. In contrast to earlier debates, the U.S. administration has actually followed through and significantly reduced their troops in Europe while ramping up their forces in the Asia-Pacific (the “rebalancing” FKA “the pivot to Asia”). Quite symbolically, after 69 years, the last Abrams tanks left European soil in 2013, which many saw as a “historic moment”. [It should be noted, however, that a number of refurbished Abrams tanks have returned to Germany in 2014.]
Under Obama, the United States has made clear that it does not expect to lead every military mission the transatlantic partners undertake. In Libya, the Europeans had to realize that they lacked the capabilities to run an intense air campaign alone. In early 2013, when the Europeans discussed the crisis in Mali, NATO’s Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow, bluntly stated: “The US and NATO cannot be everywhere.”
In earlier years, U.S. politicians would have been furious if the Europeans had planned for an operation without the United States. But the new message was: Europe, it’s your job, get used to it. Yet, given that these debates were about “wars of choice” in a “post-interventionist era”, few Europeans pushed for a major overhaul of Europe’s defense planning – much to the dismay of Washington.
Waiting for the “transatlantic renaissance”
It didn’t help that a conversation between Victoria Nuland and a U.S. ambassador was leaked, in which the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs used the F-word in respect to the EU. Ironically, Nuland is one of the few remaining committed transatlanticists in Washington and had coined the notion of a “transatlantic renaissance”. Now, that whole concept seemed to be a non-starter.
Enter Vladimir Putin. Thanks to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing threats from Moscow, the transatlantic partnership, and with it NATO, is back again.
With his actions in the past few weeks, Putin has actually provoked what he had successfully avoided for a long time: the rapid rapprochement of NATO members’ policies towards Russia. He might not have provided a “solution” to one of the core challenges in the internal debate about the Atlantic Alliance in the twenty-first century: How do we define our relations with Russia? But at the very least, he has made a new consensus among NATO member states much more likely. Continue reading