In Search of Multilateralism

by John O’Sullivan

Irwin Stelzer has a satirical take on the passive response of President Obama to the invasion of unaccompanied young people over the southern U.S. border and the administration’s decision to billet them in towns and cities across the nation. What if it were an actual invasion, he wonders in The Weekly Standard here, with guns, rockets, and ultimatums? What would Obama do then? He concludes that he would be even more passive and escape to a game of golf to avoid doing the wrong thing. It’s an enjoyable read — and too convincing for comfort.

As it happens I had a similar fantasy in September 2008 about Mr. Obama, then still a candidate, and a hypothetical Ukrainian crisis. It appeared in the New York Post, and it was inspired not by real events but by Hillary Clinton’s then notorious television ad . . .

It’s 3.00 am and your children are safe asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Something is happening in the world . . . 

“Mr. President, Russian tanks are massing on the border with Ukraine. Moscow news sites report that Ukrainian forces overran a border post. Our satellites show nothing like that. President Medvedev will give a major television speech in fifty minutes. It looks like a Russo-Ukrainian war by noon, Sir.”

President Obama dressed quickly and headed for the Situation Room. He was surprised to find he felt no real nervousness in dealing with his first international crisis. He had meticulously prepared a tough multilateral policy in advance. For once the Russians would be faced with united and timely diplomatic response.

He smiled a tight smile. They wouldn’t know what hit ’em.

“What’s first on the agenda, Joe?” he asked, glancing down at the file marked U.S. EYES ONLY. “The UN Security Council, isn’t it?”

“We’re holding discussions—intensive discussions, Sir—with the other permanent members of the Council,” replied the aide. “And we may be on the verge of a breakthrough. The Russians promise not to veto a resolution calling on both sides to halt the fighting by midnight.”

“But the Russians would be in the suburbs of Kiev by then, Joe.”

“Moscow will veto anything stronger, Mr. President. And China. Maybe France too. Remember they said last week that early Ukrainian membership of NATO was ‘premature.’”

“Maybe the Germans can lean on them,” mused the President, remembering his warm reception in Berlin.

“Germany won’t agree to using force without a UN resolution. It’s a constitutional thing with them,” chimed in the Secretary of State.

“I’m not talking force, Hillary,” replied the President. “That’s Bush-think. No, we have to respond with diplomacy and, as a last resort, sanctions.”

“Maybe the Germans can impose oil and gas sanctions on Russia,” said Mrs. Clinton sweetly. “Sit in the dark and warm themselves by burning the money they’ve saved until the Kremlin crumbles.”

“Well, there’s a united Europe today,” replied the President, brightening. “Sanctions by the whole European Union would worry the Russians. Aren’t they a possibility?”

“We’ll know for sure in two weeks, Sir, when the European Summit meets to discuss the crisis. But the signs aren’t good. Poland and the Baltic states want a strong response, but they lack the clout of Germany and France. I’d say a moderately-worded rebuke to Moscow is the best we can hope for.”

Suddenly the President remembered the new British Prime Minister. He and David Cameron had really hit it off back on his 2008 European tour. They were both committed to tough diplomacy.

Just then the phone rang again.

“My dear Obama,” began the British leader mellifluously, “I want you to know we condemn this Russian aggression unreservedly and will back any response you initiate one hundred per cent. Privately, of course.”

“Privately?” asked the President.

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” said Cameron regretfully. “We’ve been committed to common European foreign and defense policies since Tony Blair. Don’t you recall, you and John McCain both said in the debates that this would mean a stronger European ally for the U.S. Let’s hope. We’ll find out exactly what those common policies are at the European summit in two weeks time. I’ll fight for whatever tough approaches you adopt but, frankly  . . .  

“I know,” sighed the President, “the signs don’t look good. Thanks, David.” He turned to his aide. “NATO? Oh, don’t bother. Bring me the briefing files on Unilateralism, Coalitions of the Willing, and Operation Big Stick. And better find out where Dick Cheney is.”

Okay, so it wouldn’t be exactly like that . . .

Not exactly like that, no. The Europeans have actually been slightly better than I forecast. But close enough. And I believe now, as I believed then, that the underlying problem for any U.S. president is a simple but obvious one: How do you operate a multilateral foreign policy without supportive allies? America had those allies in the past because it was the leading European power from 1945 onwards militarily and politically. NATO was the organization through which the U.S. guaranteed the peace of Europe — and that fact guaranteed the loyalty of allies.

But the more that the European nations organize themselves into separate European structures economically and militarily, the more they drift away from the U.S. and the more they tend either to paralysis or appeasement in their separate councils. It has taken a very loud wake-up call on this occasion — in the form of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in light disguise — to stimulate them into taking even medium-level sanctions. Russia’s occupation of Georgia in the earlier crisis was quickly ratified by the EU and still more quickly pushed down the memory hole.

If the next U.S. president wants effective multilateralism, he must re-establish NATO not only as the sole supplier of European security but also as one well-financed by the European military budgets. 

Otherwise — and this is how I ended my previous piece in 2008 — otherwise, when the phone rings, he’ll have one rival to call instead of 25 allies.