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Keeping Our Enemies Close and Our Friends Closer

Kenneth R. Weinstein

As the 2016 presidential contest unfolds, voters now know various candidates’ positions on student loans, common core, brain surgery, and messages received from God. Perhaps in the upcoming Reagan Library CNN debate, one of the moderators might ask a simple question: If you are elected president, how long would you keep the new NATO Secretary General waiting to schedule a meeting?

We already know the answer from the current occupant of the Oval Office: two months. That is how long it took for NATO’s incoming Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to be granted a slot on President Obama’s calendar, even as the Ukraine-Russia crisis raged along the nearly 70-year-old alliance’s border. The crisis was a test for NATO, and there was no clearer way to signal to both the Russians and the Ukrainians that Ukraine was not an Obama administration priority.

In the last six and a half-years, the Obama Administration has single-handedly reversed decades of bipartisan American foreign policy. First, despite its rhetoric about new beginnings and resetting relationships, the hard fact is that this administration has repeatedly pursued unilateral actions and goals in the Middle East, Europe, and even Asia. Allies are consulted after the fact or not at all.

In very tangible ways, America’s longstanding allies are responding to their reduced status in Washington. Paradoxically, and behind closed doors, European officials regularly express longing for what one leading member of the European Parliament described to me as the “golden days” of the Bush presidency, in which American allies were consulted on critical issues. In fact, President Bush and his top advisors met with foreign leaders on a near weekly basis for informal lunches or other White House gatherings. Now leaders of our foremost strategic and economic partners think twice about traveling to Washington, knowing that the current president may not make room for them on his calendar.

Nor is this simply an Oval Office problem. No presidency has centralized so much of American foreign policy decision making inside the White House under a small circle of key National Security Council staffers. These staffers share President Obama’s belief that America should not embroil itself in significant conflicts afflicting our traditional allies. They also share a conviction that they are supporting the “international consensus” by pivoting towards the authoritarian regimes in Iran and Cuba. But rather than pleasing our friends, their unilateralist actions have unsettled key American allies who now openly question the guiding principles of our foreign policy.

Moreover, America’s diminished global leadership is allowing our strategic competitors to gain an unprecedented advantage. With Western liberal principles either checked or openly in retreat, authoritarian regimes are expanding their dominion. Case in point: staunch post-Cold War allies—Poland and the Baltic nations, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—are being subjected to Kremlin-driven propaganda efforts the likes of which have not been seen since 1989, with the goal of undermining their democratically elected governments, bringing them into the Russian sphere, and destabilizing NATO.

Indeed, American allies are expressing doubts about the Obama administration’s fundamental willingness to meet America’s long-standing treaty obligations. Countries that have relied for decades on steady and forceful American leadership have begun to re-evaluate their options in a world where the United States acts as if it has no more influence than an oversized Netherlands.

The next president, Democrat or Republican, needs to do better. She or he needs to recognize that the United States has global responsibilities and commitments that cannot be ignored simply because a president feels ideologically uncomfortable with America’s role in the world or lacks a connection to our allies. The next American leader needs to surround him or herself with individuals who understand the hard realities of geopolitics and embrace America’s unique responsibilities. And unlike the last two presidencies, the next administration must be better attuned to the global impact and unintended consequences of American statements and actions. In abandoning his self-proclaimed “red line” for Syria’s use of chemical weapons, President Obama ultimately sanctioned Bashir Assad’s use of those weapons. Likewise, by signaling that the United States was not willing to back military force in Ukraine, President Obama convinced Vladimir Putin that invading Crimea would have no serious repercussions, other than some ineffectual sanctions and empty rhetoric. These actions galvanized our enemies and demoralized our democratic allies.

The American alliance system was built over decades to keep our friends close and our adversaries at bay. But that does not mean that we can take our allies for granted. Building and sustaining alliances is hard work and requires constant communication and tradeoffs. Our allies are looking for signs of American interest, commitment and support. The next U.S. president can restore our role as the premier global power if she or he is willing. But first, each candidate must answer the fundamental question: do you want to?

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