U.S. Commitment and Obama’s Stature on the Line This Week in Overseas Trip

President Barack Obama speaks on the South Lawn of the White House to deliver a statement on Ukraine prior to departing for Florida March 20, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama announced he will 'impose additional costs' on Russia, including further sanctions on individuals and a bank. 
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
March 23, 2014, 6:56 a.m.

Re­cent de­vel­op­ments in Ukraine have trans­formed Pres­id­ent Obama’s over­seas travels this week like no pres­id­en­tial trip since the end of the Cold War, turn­ing his four-na­tion swing that be­gins Monday from a routine gath­er­ing of world lead­ers to an emer­gency meet­ing of al­lies try­ing to find a way to re­strain a Rus­sia gone rogue.

Vladi­mir Putin will not be at the Hag­ue when the third Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit opens Monday, even though these high-level meet­ings were in­spired by the his­tor­ic co­oper­a­tion between Mo­scow and Wash­ing­ton in safe­guard­ing the Krem­lin’s Cold War stock­pile of nuc­le­ar weapons.

But the Rus­si­an pres­id­ent will be the top­ic of most of the con­ver­sa­tions of the 53 world lead­ers who will be in the Neth­er­lands on Monday and Tues­day. Both there and then again at a sum­mit with lead­ers of the European Uni­on in Brus­sels, said Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice, the pres­id­ent will be “mo­bil­iz­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity and some of our most im­port­ant part­ners in the world” to fol­low the Amer­ic­an lead in re­spond­ing to Rus­sia’s pro­voc­at­ive ac­tions in the Crimean pen­in­sula.

The trip’s mes­sage to Putin, she told re­port­ers, is “the fun­da­ment­al strength and im­port­ance of our al­li­ances and part­ner­ships.”

But when he ar­rives in Europe, Obama will find most of those al­lies anxious and many of those part­ners angry. “There is in­creas­ing an­ger and frus­tra­tion to­ward the United States,” said Heath­er A. Con­ley, dir­ect­or of the Europe Pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton. She said many European lead­ers had planned to use these meet­ings to vent their un­hap­pi­ness with Amer­ic­an sur­veil­lance of their private con­ver­sa­tions as well as their frus­tra­tion over a glob­al eco­nom­ic slow­down in its fifth year.

Now, however, the Rus­si­an threat to Ukraine has forced EU lead­ers to mute that an­ger and fo­cus on the cur­rent crisis grip­ping the con­tin­ent. They find them­selves look­ing to Wash­ing­ton for lead­er­ship but not all of them are eager to fol­low Obama’s lead down the path of stiff eco­nom­ic sanc­tions. They fear such sanc­tions will hurt their own fin­an­cial in­terests more than Putin’s cronies.

But they want to hear from Obama dir­ectly about what comes next in what Con­ley called “this new and highly com­bust­ible con­text.” They will get that chance first in smal­ler meet­ings both in the Hag­ue and Brus­sels and then in what the White House is billing as the ma­jor ad­dress of the trip. That will be Wed­nes­day at the Pal­ais des Beaux-Arts when he will of­fer “his vis­ion of trans-At­lantic re­la­tions, of European se­cur­ity,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser.

Rhodes told re­port­ers that “the situ­ation in Ukraine will factor heav­ily in­to his present­a­tion.”

In fact, that situ­ation over­shad­ows everything Obama plans this week, from his vis­it to the World War I bat­tle­field of Flanders in Bel­gi­um to his first meet­ing with Pope Fran­cis at the Vat­ic­an to an emer­gency meet­ing of the G-7 al­lies and a ses­sion with the lead­ers of the NATO al­li­ance.

“The Obama trip is go­ing to be dom­in­ated by Ukraine,” said Mi­chael J. Geary, an as­sist­ant pro­fess­or of mod­ern Europe at Maastricht Uni­versity in the Neth­er­lands and a European ex­pert at the Wilson Cen­ter. He called it crit­ic­al for the pres­id­ent to push the al­lies to of­fer more fin­an­cial aid to Kiev to sta­bil­ize what is left of Ukraine.

“They need the money now be­cause the coun­try’s un­der the verge of bank­ruptcy,” he said.

Jeremy Sha­piro, who helped handle European af­fairs in the State De­part­ment in Obama’s first term, voiced some frus­tra­tion that “some pretty im­port­ant pres­id­en­tial pri­or­it­ies” will be pushed in­to the shad­ows by the Ukraine crisis. But he said it is crit­ic­al that the al­lies rush aid to Ukraine, which, he said, “needs a lot of short-term money to stave off col­lapse.”

The prob­lem for Obama as he ex­horts Europe to do more is that he has failed so far to get his own Con­gress to ap­prove a U.S. aid pack­age. “I do think that the pres­id­ent has to de­liv­er the United States,” ac­know­ledged Sha­piro, re­call­ing that when he was at the State De­part­ment he some­times found him­self “ex­hort­ing people to do things that we wer­en’t do­ing.”

Wil­li­am E. Pom­er­anz, deputy dir­ect­or of the Ken­nan In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Rus­si­an Stud­ies at the Wilson Cen­ter, said the con­tin­ued stan­doff on Cap­it­ol Hill weak­ens Obama’s hand in Europe.

“If we con­tin­ue to drag and we don’t show up with money at the table here, we will be­gin to lose cred­ib­il­ity,” he said, not­ing the con­trast with the Europeans. “If it turns out … where the EU is in­vest­ing bil­lions and bil­lions of dol­lars, up­wards of $15 bil­lion, to help Ukraine and some­how we can’t even get a lousy bil­lion dol­lars in­to this … then I do think the Europeans will look at the United States and start to ask” ques­tions.

An­oth­er chal­lenge for the pres­id­ent is how to get the al­lies to em­brace tough sanc­tions. But the White House has been en­cour­aged by the latest sig­nals com­ing from Ber­lin and Lon­don. In Ger­many alone there are 6,000 com­pan­ies with ves­ted in­terests in Rus­sia. But Geary said the en­vir­on­ment has shif­ted in part be­cause of fear of what Putin may do next. He ex­pects the G-7 this week to of­fer “force­ful lan­guage” backed by the threat of tough­er sanc­tions.

Already un­der fire from polit­ic­al foes who con­tend his re­sponse to Putin’s pro­voca­tions has been weak, Obama risks be­ing fur­ther weakened if he fails to present a front of al­lied unity dur­ing his trip. While in Bel­gi­um, the pres­id­ent also will get a sharp re­mind­er of the costs of past European con­flict. As part of the centen­ni­al of World War I, he will vis­it Flanders, site of three lengthy battles with a stag­ger­ing cas­u­alty count of hun­dreds of thou­sand deaths.

From Italy, the pres­id­ent is sched­uled to go Fri­day to Riy­adh for meet­ings with Saudi King Ab­dul­lah and dis­cus­sions about the on­go­ing civil war in Syr­ia and the stalled Middle East peace pro­cess.

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