The Struggle to Define a Leadership Agenda
Perhaps it was intentional for the White House to have Susan Rice present a new National Security Strategy in Washington on February 6—the first day of the world’s largest and most prominent gathering of the security community, the Munich Security Conference. If it was, the announcement went relatively unnoticed in that large gathering; Rice was not in Munich to explain it further.
The administration releases a new National Security Strategy every few years with the purpose of presenting to domestic and foreign audiences what its foreign priorities are and will be. Obama presented his last strategy in 2010. That was another time, with references to a reset button with Russia, closer relations with China, and a good deal of focus on climate issues.
This time the strategy contained several similar issues to confront. But with regard to Russia, any reference to a reset is gone.
Strategic Patience and Persistence
There was a reference to the concept “strategic patience” as a leitmotif of U.S. security policy.
The thrust was contained in the following sentences:
“The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence […] many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes […] we must recognize that a smart national security policy does not rely solely on military power. […] America leads from a position of strength but this does not mean that we can or should dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world.” The 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy
In thinking about those admonitions, it might seem that if Chancellor Angela Merkel were presenting her case for a national security strategy, it would not sound too different. In fact, the concept of strategic patience and persistence would appear to underlie her own approach to foreign policy challenges—case in point, Ukraine.
Merkel spent a good deal of her time at the Munich Security Conference arguing that negotiating with Russian president Vladimir Putin takes exactly those two virtues: patience and persistence. She said repeatedly that she would continue to negotiate for two main reasons: she owes it to the Ukrainians to help secure a ceasefire and avoid a wider war, and she believes that the use of more military power will not achieve that goal.
When President Barack Obama and Merkel had their joint press conference in Washington, DC this week, they both underlined their commitment to the first goal of a ceasefire and a politically negotiated settlement. The unanswered question remains: how does that get done? We can see where the German focus on persistence and patience in negotiating draws a line at combining that with delivering weapons to the Ukrainians to defend themselves against the Russian-supported separatists.
Merkel drew an interesting comparison with her experience growing up on the other side of the Berlin Wall. While neither the Russians nor the United States and its allies were enthusiastic about going to war when the Berlin Wall emerged in 1961, she argued that a patient and persistent policy in the West eventually led to the peaceful end of Germany’s division almost three decades later.
Of course, that involved the continued “patience and persistence” of an allied military presence in Berlin and in the West facing Russian troops on the other side during that whole period to guarantee the security of the Federal Republic of Germany .
The comparison she draws with the situation in Ukraine is a stretch. The divisions of the Cold War were already set out fifteen years earlier, after World War II. The construction of the Wall essentially cast it in cement and barbed wire fences. The situation in Ukraine, however, involved a Russian invasion force, changing national borders while annexing territory against international law and thereby contributing to a military conflict costing thousands of lives.
Congress Out of Step with the White House and Chancellery?
Although Merkel and Obama came out on the same page with regard to trying the diplomatic negotiation route in Ukraine, other tools are not off the table—including a commitment to help Ukraine defend itself and its borders while negotiations continue. Despite the rhetoric in the White House strategy, Congress is increasingly driving the U.S. policy debate in the direction of aiding Kiev’s efforts to hold off the separatist attacks. The United States has the same military capacity it had during the Cold War; however, it is not going to do put thousands of troops in Ukraine as did in Germany. And the use of military force is something Merkel does not believe will work anyway.
Merkel and her European partners want to negotiate a peace settlement with Putin. They rule out—for now—supplying the Ukrainian forces with the military tools they need. In fact, some Europeans argue that American pressure to step up military aid to Kiev is counterproductive. It goes further in some circles, with arguments against any U.S. involvement in the negotiations with Russia. “This should be handled by Europeans,” argues President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz. With its allleged more aggressive rhetoric – along with condescending remarks about Russia being a regional power – the United States appears to some to be an obstacle to progress.
Europe can further ratchet up sanctions on Moscow, but it remains unclear whether it can move Putin’s obsession with being recognized as a great world leader.
In response to Germany’s rejection of military aid to Ukraine, one participant in the Munich Security Conference reminded the audience of a quote from Frederick the Great:
“Diplomacy without military power is like music without instruments.” One might also recall the lessons drawn from the experiences of earlier years when that mix was used during the Cold War with evident success. The question is, what should that mix look like now?
The security conference had one more moment when there might have been some perceived overlap between Germany’s strategic thinking and that in the White House. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen offered a slogan to define German leadership in dealing with challenges: Führung aus der Mitte (leadership from the center). She was presumably referring to Germany exerting leadership within the context of a European framework or among its allies in NATO. Some even might call this a strategy of leading from the second row—if not from behind.
But this message also was related to some of the points in the National Security Strategy which highlighted hard choices, competing priorities, and resisting overreach. That also suggests that the United States will lead but that it may need to rely on others to pick up slack where needed.
The Munich Security Conference was a platform for both Germany and the U.S. to present their versions of leadership again. There were many other issues and actors on that stage in Munich and not everyone was particularly interested in delving into German and American introspection. There are certainly other burning issues to confront in Africa and the Middle east to start.
Yet, given Germany’s key role in Europe today, it is important that there be transparency and honesty between Berlin and Washington on critical policy choices ahead. Ukraine is one of many. While the media seem to obsess on what they portrayed as a German-American clash, there was too much attention paid in Munich to hotheads like Senators John McCain or Lindsay Graham, whose rhetoric was more suitable for domestic campaign speeches.
The honest platform of exchange between Merkel and Obama during their press conference in Washington was more revealing. There is clearly a struggle on both sides of the Atlantic to come up with the right formula and the most effective tools to deal with today’s challenges. There will be differences on both, and that is okay. At a time when no one has a monopoly of expertise on the coming agenda we face, we need all the help we can muster to share what we know, what we don’t know, argue about it, and figure out what we then can do about it . That would be even more effective if we did it together. Right now the crisis in Ukraine is occupying the spotlight. But that is only part of the challenge where Germany and the United States are still working on being leaders in effective partnership.