Europe ought to be grateful to Robert M Gates. In his farewell speech in Brussels he read the allies a lesson they could not have misunderstood. If, from hereon, Europeans are not prepared to deliver more to the alliance, American voters – and with them Congress – will dump NATO. Why be grateful for that statement? Because a better demonstration of the bankruptcy of the alliance is difficult to imagine. The Europeans can only gain from a confrontation with that reality, and Gates has just made such a confrontation more likely. If the European states comply with the demands made by the departing American defense secretary this would boil down to them accepting a permanent status as vassals of the United States. Washington determines how many, where and when. The why of it all remains unclear and can change by the day. Take the case of Libya where as the main purpose of military action regime change has been substituted for protection of the population.
Recent casualities among the Dutch soldiers fighting in Afghanistan have come at a very inopportune moment for the political and militairy leadership of the Netherlands. Discussion has begun, inside and outside Parliament, as to what form the Dutch presence in that country could take, when Dutch leadership of NATO troops in the province Uruzgan terminates at the end of next year. American pressure on the government in The Hague to remain active in Afghanistan, militarily if possible, is considerable and is likely to increase. On the other hand, increasing doubt and criticism among the public forces the political top to rethink the meaning of the project and, one step further, reflect on the question as to whether membership of NATO remains at all meaningful for the Netherlands. The continuing loss of life, the duration of the war (longer than either of both world wars in the twentieth century), and the apparent hopelessness of the undertaking are eroding whatever was there as a public foundation for the exercise. The death toll among the Dutch soldiers serving in Afghanistan reached 21 when last week a 44-year-old sergeant major riding in an open jeep hit an improvised explosive device. A few days before that a 26-year-old Dutch commando had been killed in a gun battle.
Which Obama was visiting Moscow this week? The Obama of the outstretched hand or the Obama of incontestable opinion? In his speech to students of the New Economic School (which was created with support from the West after the demise of the Soviet Union) both Obamas were on display. The presence in the audience of the last president of the Soviet Union, Michael Gorbachev, seemed to underline the new start, the "reset", which this American president says he wants to achieve in relations with Russia.
The outstretched hand: "To begin with, let me be clear: America wants a strong, a peaceful, and prosperous Russia. This belief is rooted in our respect for the Russian people, and a shared history between our nations that goes beyond competition. Despite our past rivalry, our peoples were allies in the greatest struggle of the last century." And: "So as we honor this past, we also recognize the future benefit that will come from a strong and vibrant Russia. Think of the issues that will define your lives: security from nuclear weapons and extremism; access to markets and opportunity; health and the environment; an international system that protects sovereignity and human rights, while promoting stability and prosperity. These challenges demand global partnership, and that partnership will be stronger if Russia occupies its rightful place as a great power."
Incontestable opinion: In spite of all the pious words have devoted to the future of his young audience, Obama demonstrated a conspicuous lack of any willingness to take Russian sensitivities into account. A major concern centers on the American plans to establish a missile shield in Eastern Europe. For a short while before his inauguration there had been talk that Obama would scrap those plans as they dated from the Bush era, but in Moscow he brushed aside the Russian objections: "I know Russia opposes the planned configuration for missile defense in Europe. And my administration is reviewing these plans to enhance the security of America, Europe and the world. And I've made it clear that this system is directed at preventing a potential attack from Iran. It has nothing to do with Russia.” Obama added that if the threat from Iran were removed “the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated, and that is in our mutual interests.”
As the America of Barack Obama is tentatively reducing its distance to Russia, the question re-emerges as to what is, from a European point of view, the optimal diplomatic distance between the two former Cold War rivals. President Obama will visit Moscow in early July to meet his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev. This meeting is clearly of vital importance to Europe. If the talks fail it will mean a serious upset of relations on the continent. If the meeting becomes a success the chances for a considerable improvement of American Russian relations will increase, an improvement that will also benefit Europe as a whole. Everything depends on whether or not Americans and Russians will succeed to establish a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) before December 5, when the existing treaty expires. The Bush government throughout its eight years in power refused to cooperate in establishing a follow-up. An expired treaty also means that the verification of the mutual reduction of nuclear arms comes to an end. Unless Obama and Medvedev agree on a new START and a new verification system the world will face nuclear anarchy.
Pakistan will become a ‘mortal threat’ if the Taliban manage to take power in that country, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in recent testimony before Congress. The immediate cause for this warning was the agreement the government of Pakistan has entered into with local leaders of the Taleban permitting the introduction of Islamic Sharia law in the Swat-Valley adjoining the Afghan border. The Taleban has, moreover, advanced to approximately 100 km from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Clinton suggested that with present trends the Pakistani nuclear bomb may fall into the hands of the extremist Muslim movement. A mortal threat.
The developments in Pakistan are negating the plans of President Obama to make a new start in Central Asia. At the Afghanistan conference held this spring in The Hague, a list was unveiled topped by the demand to win the hearts and minds of the population through durable assistance and restrained military behaviour. Clinton, when speaking in The Hague, offered the Dutch approach in the province of Uruzgan as a model for the United States and other partners in the NATO effort to stabilize Afghanistan.
We are "determined to end the tragic conflict in Afghanistan and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights in the country". This could have been a quote from remarks made this week in The Hague at a special conference on Afghanistan in which 72 countries participated, along with the United Nations. But the line is from a preamble to the Petersberg Accord signed on December 5th 2001 at the Petersberg conference site along the Rhine river. It did not take long to become clear that the route chosen in Petersberg, paved with good intentions, led the Afghan people straight to hell. On the ground everything changed into its opposite. No conciliation, no peace, no stability, no human rights. Although the Taleban was pushed to the background for a while, the culprits behind the attacks in New York and Washington, which some months earlier had made several thousand victims, disappeared in the caves and tunnels of the Tora Bora mountain range that straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have remained untraceable since then. The original aim of the American invasion, apprehending Osama bin Laden and his henchmen “dead or alive”, melted into the haze of the Central Asian underworld roughly at the same time the Petersberg conference offered its results.