There is something very surreal about what the United States would have achieved at the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Warsaw (July 8-9). For a start, this was an American show personally conducted by President Barack Obama; and, it was his last waltz in Europe.

Obama at Warsaw summit
US President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at PGE National Satdium in Warsaw, Poland

For a change, Obama was explicitly there on the centre stage, leading the western alliance. This is the first time Obama has really done that.

He himself has admitted may times that the crowning achievement of his presidency on the foreign policy arena – Iran nuclear deal – was a collective effort by the “P5+1” (veto-holding members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.)

Of course, it is recorded history that he chose to lead from behind the western military intervention in Libya in 2011. Perhaps, Obama would have left the world a far better place had he continued leading the West from behind.

For the first time in the post-Cold War era, the specter of war between the US and Russia haunts the world community. And that will be his most consequential presidential legacy.

The stridency of Obama’s rhetoric against Russia in Warsaw may have helped to silence the western leaders who lined up behind him.

When Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras showed the audacity to signal disagreement at the summit meeting and voiced the opinion that it was time to end the standoff with Russia, Obama quickly slapped down.

It was a stunning show of brash leadership qualities. No one ever remotely associated Obama with such killer instinct.

To be sure, the US has succeeded in getting its European allies to thumb the nose at Russia. The Warsaw summit adopted the following key decisions that are Russia-centric:

  • Deployment of 3,000-4,000 troops in the Baltic states and Poland;
  • NATO assuming command of the US’ missile shield in Europe; and,
  • Strengthening of Ukraine’s armed forces.

However, the difficult part begins now for Washington – getting Moscow to overreact to the above NATO provocations.

It is a tough call because Obama becomes a ‘lame duck’ shortly, and Moscow will prefer to deal with a US president with authority. Obama may not even get to see the full range of the Russian reaction.

Indeed, Moscow’s initial reaction has been rather muted – and ambivalent. The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Moscow is “carefully examining” the NATO’s decisions and “expects detailed explanations” at the ambassadorial level meeting in Brussels due on Wednesday, while also pointing out that the western alliance “focuses on containing a non-existent threat from the East.”

However, she warned of “long-term negative consequences to the entire Euro-Atlantic system” as a result of the US attempt to change the balance of power, including via the deployment of missile defense system.

The ball is now in the Kremlin’s court. But, what if Moscow doesn’t overreact?

Taking into account its various conciliatory statements in the recent period, especially, the speech in Moscow a fortnight ago by President Vladimir Putin while addressing the Russian ambassadors where he may have made overture to the West, Obama is skating on thin ice.

The point is, the Obama administration has ratcheted up tensions with Russia to such a high pitch that is simply not sustainable. Simply put, the world, especially Europe, is not ready for a Russian-American nuclear war.

On the eve of the Warsaw summit, the US even expelled two Russian diplomats from the embassy in Washington. Nonetheless, what is the guarantee that the Kremlin will play ball with Obama to keep tensions at the present high level?

Conversely, what happens if it doesn’t cooperate? The heart of the matter is that the show of unity at the Warsaw summit papers over fault lines – and Moscow cannot but be weighing that in.

As the Financial Times put it, there are “growing signs of divisions” among the NATO allies regarding relations with Russia. Germany and France openly stated in the run-up to the summit in Warsaw that they are not at all inclined to see Russia as an adversary or as posing any threat.

The FT reported that France doggedly resisted right up to the weekend summit the campaign by the US and its allies from central Europe and the Baltics for the NATO to adopt hawkish positions vis-à-vis Russia. Paris, reportedly, didn’t even want any NATO document to explicitly mention ‘Russia’.

Clearly, Europeans are terribly preoccupied with other existential issues. According to the British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, “Brexit was the (only) subject on the table.”

The point is, notwithstanding Obama’s grandstanding, in the corridors of the retractable roof football stadium in Warsaw where the NATO summit took place, the angst in the minds and words of the assembled statesmen was explicitly over Brexit – not Russia’s ‘aggression.’

After a dinner with his 27 NATO counterparts, Hammond succinctly framed the prevailing mood of the European statesmen:

  • We are at a NATO meeting but most of the discussions have not been about NATO issues, they have been about the outcome of the (Brexit) referendum and the consequences.

In fact, during the summit, word slipped out that the British government says ‘Nyet’ to a second referendum on the EU, saying Brexit was a “once in a generation vote.’

In the final analysis, Obama himself devoted a considerable amount of time “to ensure Washington’s closest ally in Europe is not sidelined or punished by European partners” – according to a Reuters report.

Then, there are the profound but unspoken issues that hovered above the summit table in Warsaw like the ghost of Banquo in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth.

What comes to mind are the famous words of Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general, when he said in 1949 that the alliance’s goal was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Sixty-seven years down the corridors of our current history, things are back to where they were in Lord Ismay’s time.

Russia is cozying up to the continental European powers; US is desperate to preserve its transatlantic leadership; whilst Germany’s ‘unipolar moment’ has arrived in European politics.

Simply put, the crunch time will come just when Obama packs his bags to transfer residence from the White House. That is, around the time when the next president will be preparing to be sworn in, when Europeans have to unanimously agree to roll sanctions against Russia beyond February.

Britain’s voice will count far less by then. Suffice it to say, Obama is going to find that it is a tough call to fulfil his prophecy in Warsaw that, “We are united that there can be no business as usual with Russia.”

Curiously, Obama even forgot in Warsaw that in a couple of days from now, the UN verdict on the South China Sea is due and he will be called upon to fulfil the expectations raised by his re-balance strategy in the faraway Asian continent.

Under the circumstances, there was symbolism in Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to skip fictional politics by ditching the rest of the NATO summit and slip out of Warsaw on Friday to take the flight to New York to catch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s star-packed last performance of Hamilton while the Broadway favourite cut off his long locks after final farewell.

Kerry wisely opted to hang out with Jane Fonda, JLO & Charlie Rose. That probably conveyed more to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov than all of Obama’s bombastic statements at Warsaw put together.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

(Copyright 2016 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

Leave a comment