Issues Navigator

Global Challenges

Strategic Regions

Domestic Debates

Tag cloud

See All Tags

December 4, 2012 |  Print  Your Opinion  

Transatlantic Security in Obama II: Gray Clouds, Silver Linings

William C. Fleeson: President Obama won a second term one month ago this week. Transatlantic security experts have predicted everything from the dismal to the miraculous. Here’s a cautiously pessimistic assessment of what the next four years could hold for defense in the Atlantic sphere.

For starters, Obama's foreign policy will not be centered, or even very much related, to the North Atlantic security partnership. His first administration's "pivot to Asia" -- even if he has since disavowed the expression -- has refocused US interests and attention toward Pacific powers.

He suggested as much through his November visit to Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, his first since winning a second term. Many saw the trip as a campaign to boost friendships in Asia, and as a counterbalance to an unpredictable China. Between a slowing Chinese economy, territorial disputes with Japan, and a historic change in Chinese leadership with the arrival of Xi Jinping, the US President will have plenty to preoccupy him in that region.

Aside from the Asian pivot, the President seems to be pivoting toward everywhere else except Europe. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius published on November 9 a list of four foreign policy priorities for the next administration: China, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. To state the obvious, Europe is nowhere on that list.

More positively, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton scored a recent win by brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, which absorbed considerable diplomatic and political resources. But the peace is fragile indeed, and regional headaches will continue in the evolution of the Arab Spring movement, especially in Syria. Add that to Egypt's democratic backslide via the disenfranchisement of its judiciary, and the Middle East should monopolize Washington's foreign-policy attention for some time to come.

Domestically, Obama has won four more years of full-time political gridlock. The campaign that the President won broke records, both for money spent ($6 billion altogether), and for the bitter rhetoric wrought on the US public. And what has changed? Democrats maintained control of the White House and the Senate. Republicans maintained control of the House of Representatives. "The more things change..." We know the rest.

Congress faces a "fiscal cliff" and sharpening pressure to draw from the Pentagon's piggy bank. Afghanistan is drawing down, and the Democrat-controlled Senate-the US chamber that holds legislative authority on foreign affairs-sees a clear horizon for the next two years at least, when the next elections will take place. Sustained spending levels and defense-minded political will are far from guaranteed.

There are glimmers of good news for transatlantic security. The US announced on plans to station 10 American soldiers in central Poland to train Polish pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets. The new announcement is cold comfort to anyone looking for more muscular support to one of America's formerly Soviet-dominated allies.

In the same region, bases in Romania have been vital for the Northern Distribution Network to Afghanistan, especially when Pakistan demonstrates consistently how inconsistent their alliance with the US really is. The NATO Center of Excellence in Cybersecurity, based in Estonia, is another silver lining in the otherwise gray clouds of transatlantic defense news of late.

President Obama knows that, from F-16s to cyber capacity in Eastern Europe, transatlantic security is way beyond the "horses and bayonets" for which he derided challenger Mitt Romney during the presidential debates. Yet Obama may still be tempted to look outside the Euro-American sphere, given the pressing issues in Asia and the Middle East. He'll be challenged by the deeply polarized American political landscape. As Europe struggles through austerity, Obama knows his European partners will often have to choose between cutbacks and military maintenance, and he knows they won't always choose the latter.

In analyzing the cost-benefit of a sustained Atlantic-area defense, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it this way last month: "Some argue that we cannot afford it. But I say that we cannot afford to be without it."

Transatlantic security will benefit from a second Obama term only if the US President adopts Rasmussen's view as his own.

William C. Fleeson holds a graduate degree from Columbia University in international affairs, and has also studied at the Sorbonne and Sciences-Po Paris. He blogs at

  • 8
  • No rating possible
  • No rating possible
I like this Article! What's this?

Tags: | Poland | Rumania | Obama | smart defense | NATO | austerity |

Commenting has been deactivated in the archive. We appreciate your comments on our more recent articles at


You are in the archive of all articles published on from 2007 to 2012. To read the latest articles from our open think tank and network with community members, please go to our new website