Turkey the key to Obama's Europe policy

President Obama addressing the Turkish ParliamentThis article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.

The weeklong extravaganza of G-20, NATO, EU, U.S. and Turkey meetings has almost ended. The spin emerging from the meetings, echoed in most
of the media, sought to portray the meetings as a success and as
reflecting a re-emergence of trans-Atlantic unity.

The reality, however, is that the meetings ended in apparent unity
because the United States accepted European unwillingness to compromise
on key issues. U.S. President Barack Obama wanted the week to appear
successful, and therefore backed off on key issues; the Europeans did
the same. Moreover, Obama appears to have set a process in motion that
bypasses Europe to focus on his last stop: Turkey.

Let’s begin with the G-20 meeting, which focused on the global
financial crisis. As we said last year, there were many European
positions, but the United States was reacting to Germany’s. Not only is Germany the largest economy in Europe, it is the largest exporter in the world.
Any agreement that did not include Germany would be useless, whereas an
agreement excluding the rest of Europe but including Germany would
still be useful.

Two fundamental issues divided the United States and Germany.
The first was whether Germany would match or come close to the U.S.
stimulus package. The United States wanted Germany to stimulate its own
domestic demand. Obama feared that if the United States put a stimulus
plan into place, Germany would use increased demand in the U.S. market
to expand its exports. The United States would wind up with massive
deficits while the Germans took advantage of U.S. spending, thus
letting Berlin enjoy the best of both worlds. Washington felt it had to
stimulate its economy, and that this would inevitably benefit the rest
of the world. But Washington wanted burden sharing. Berlin, quite
rationally, did not. Even before the meetings, the United States
dropped the demand — Germany was not going to cooperate.

The second issue was the financing of the bailout of the Central
European banking system, heavily controlled by eurozone banks and part
of the EU financial system.
The Germans did not want an EU effort to bail out the banks. They
wanted the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail out a substantial
part of the EU financial system instead. The reason was simple: The IMF
receives loans from the United States, as well as China and Japan,
meaning the Europeans would be joined by others in underwriting the
bailout. The United States has signaled it would be willing to contribute $100 billion to the IMF,
of which a substantial portion would go to Central Europe. (Of the
current loans given by the IMF, roughly 80 percent have gone to the
struggling economies in Central Europe.) The United States therefore
essentially has agreed to the German position.

Later at the NATO meeting, the Europeans — including Germany —
declined to send substantial forces to Afghanistan. Instead, they
designated a token force of 5,000, most of whom are scheduled to be in
Afghanistan only until the August elections there, and few of whom
actually would be engaged in combat operations. This is far below what
Obama had been hoping for when he began his presidency.

Agreement was reached on collaboration in detecting international tax fraud and on further collaboration in managing the international crisis,
however. But what that means remains extremely vague — as it was meant
to be, since there was no consensus on what was to be done. In fact,
the actual guidelines will still have to be hashed out at the G-20
finance ministers’ meeting in Scotland in November. Intriguingly, after
insisting on the creation of a global regulatory regime — and with the
vague U.S. assent — the European Union failed to agree on European regulations.
In a meeting in Prague on April 4, the United Kingdom rejected the
regulatory regime being proposed by Germany and France, saying it would
leave the British banking system at a disadvantage.

Overall, the G-20 and the NATO meetings did not produce significant
breakthroughs. Rather than pushing hard on issues or trading
concessions — such as accepting Germany’s unwillingness to increase its
stimulus package in return for more troops in Afghanistan — the United
States failed to press or bargain. It preferred to appear as part of a
consensus rather than appear isolated. The United States systematically
avoided any appearance of disagreement.

The reason there was no bargaining was fairly simple: The Germans
were not prepared to bargain. They came to the meetings with prepared
positions, and the United States had no levers with which to move them.
The only option was to withhold funding for the IMF, and that would
have been a political disaster (not to mention economically rather
unwise). The United States would have been seen as unwilling to
participate in multilateral solutions rather than Germany being seen as
trying to foist its economic problems on others. Obama has positioned
himself as a multilateralist and can’t afford the political
consequences of deviating from this perception. Contributing to the
IMF, in these days of trillion-dollar bailouts, was the lower-cost
alternative. Thus, the Germans have the U.S. boxed in.

The political aspect of this should not be underestimated. George W.
Bush had extremely bad relations with the Europeans (in large part
because he was prepared to confront them). This was Obama’s first major
international foray, and he could not let it end in acrimony or wind up
being seen as unable to move the Europeans after running a campaign based on his ability to manage the Western coalition.
It was important that he come home having reached consensus with the
Europeans. Backing off on key economic and military demands gave him
that “consensus.”

Turkey and Obama’s Deeper Game

But it was not simply a matter of domestic politics. It is becoming
clear that Obama is playing a deeper game. A couple of weeks before the
meetings, when it had become obvious that the Europeans were not going
to bend on the issues that concerned the United States, Obama scheduled a trip to Turkey.
During the EU meetings in Prague, Obama vigorously supported the
Turkish application for EU membership, which several members are
blocking on grounds of concerns over human rights and the role of the
military in Turkey. But the real reason is that full membership would
open European borders to Turkish migration, and the Europeans do not
want free Turkish migration. The United States directly confronted the
Europeans on this matter.

During the NATO meeting, a key item on the agenda was the selection of a new alliance secretary-general.
The favorite was former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Turkey opposed his candidacy because of his defense on grounds of free
speech of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed published in a Danish
magazine. NATO operates on consensus, so any one member can block just
about anything. The Turks backed off the veto, but won two key
positions in NATO, including that of deputy secretary-general.

So while the Germans won their way at the meetings, it was the Turks who came back with the most. Not only did they boost their standing in NATO,
they got Obama to come to a vigorous defense of the Turkish application
for membership in the European Union, which of course the United States
does not belong to. Obama then flew to Turkey for meetings and to
attend a key international meeting that will allow him to further
position the United States in relation to Islam.

The Russian Dimension

Let’s diverge to another dimension of these talks, which still concerns Turkey, but also concerns the Russians.
While atmospherics after the last week’s meetings might have improved,
there was certainly no fundamental shift in U.S.-Russian relations. The
Russians have rejected the idea of pressuring Iran over its nuclear
program in return for the United States abandoning its planned
ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The
United States simultaneously downplayed the importance of a Russian
route to Afghanistan. Washington said there were sufficient supplies in
Afghanistan and enough security on the Pakistani route such that the
Russians weren’t essential for supplying Western operations in
Afghanistan. At the same time, the United States reached an agreement with Ukraine for the transshipment of supplies — a mostly symbolic gesture, but one guaranteed to infuriate the
Russians at both the United States and Ukraine. Moreover, the NATO
communique did not abandon the idea of Ukraine and Georgia being
admitted to NATO, although the German position on unspecified delays to
such membership was there as well. When Obama looks at the chessboard,
the key emerging challenge remains Russia.

The Germans are not going to be joining the United States in blocking Russia.
Between dependence on Russia for energy supplies and little appetite
for confronting a Russia that Berlin sees as no real immediate threat
to Germany, the Germans are not going to address the Russian question.
At the same time, the United States does not want to push the Germans
toward Russia, particularly in confrontations ultimately of secondary
importance and on which Germany has no give anyway. Obama is aware that
the German left is viscerally anti-American, while Merkel is only
pragmatically anti-American — a small distinction, but significant
enough for Washington not to press Berlin.

At the same time, an extremely important event between Turkey and Armenia looks to be on the horizon. Armenians had long held Turkey responsible
for the mass murder of Armenians during and after World War I, a charge
the Turks have denied. The U.S. Congress for several years has
threatened to pass a resolution condemning Turkish genocide against
Armenians. The Turks are extraordinarily sensitive to this charge, and
passage would have meant a break with the United States. Last week,
they publicly began to discuss an agreement with the Armenians,
including diplomatic recognition, which essentially disarms the danger
from any U.S. resolution on genocide. Although an actual agreement
hasn’t been signed just yet, anticipation is building on all sides.

The Turkish opening to Armenia has potentially significant
implications for the balance of power in the Caucasus. The August 2008
Russo-Georgian war created an unstable situation in an area of vital
importance to Russia. Russian troops remain deployed, and NATO has
called for their withdrawal from the breakaway Georgian regions of
South Ossetia and Abkhazia. There are Russian troops in Armenia,
meaning Russia has Georgia surrounded. In addition, there is talk of an
alternative natural gas pipeline network from Azerbaijan to Europe.

Turkey is the key to all of this. If Ankara collaborates with Russia, Georgia’s position
is precarious and Azerbaijan’s route to Europe is blocked. If it
cooperates with the United States and also manages to reach a stable
treaty with Armenia under U.S. auspices, the Russian position in the
Caucasus is weakened and an alternative route for natural gas to Europe
opens up, decreasing Russian leverage against Europe.

From the American point of view, Europe is a lost cause since
internally it cannot find a common position and its heavyweights are
bound by their relationship with Russia. It cannot agree on economic
policy, nor do its economic interests coincide with those of the United
States, at least insofar as Germany is concerned. As far as Russia is
concerned, Germany and Europe are locked in by their dependence on
Russian natural gas. The U.S.-European relationship thus is torn apart
not by personalities, but by fundamental economic and military
realities. No amount of talking will solve that problem.

The key to sustaining the U.S.-German alliance is reducing Germany’s dependence on Russian natural gas and putting Russia on the defensive rather than the offensive.
The key to that now is Turkey, since it is one of the only routes
energy from new sources can cross to get to Europe from the Middle
East, Central Asia or the Caucasus. If Turkey — which has deep
influence in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Ukraine, the Middle East and
the Balkans — is prepared to ally with the United States, Russia is on
the defensive and a long-term solution to Germany’s energy problem can
be found. On the other hand, if Turkey decides to take a defensive
position and moves to cooperate with Russia instead, Russia retains the
initiative and Germany is locked into Russian-controlled energy for a generation.

Therefore, having sat through fruitless meetings with the Europeans,
Obama chose not to cause a pointless confrontation with a Europe that
is out of options. Instead, Obama completed his trip by going to Turkey
to discuss what the treaty with Armenia means and to try to convince
the Turks to play for high stakes by challenging Russia in the
Caucasus, rather than playing Russia’s junior partner.

This is why Obama’s most important speech in Europe was his last
one, following Turkey’s emergence as a major player in NATO’s political
structure. In that speech, he sided with the Turks against Europe, and
extracted some minor concessions from the Europeans on the process for
considering Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Why Turkey wants
to be an EU member is not always obvious to us, but they do want
membership. Obama is trying to show the Turks that he can deliver for
them. He reiterated — if not laid it on even more heavily — all of this
in his speech in Ankara. Obama laid out the U.S. position as one that
recognized the tough geopolitical position Turkey is in and the leader
that Turkey is becoming, and also recognized the commonalities between
Washington and Ankara. This was exactly what Turkey wanted to hear.

The Caucasus is far from the only area to discuss. Talks will be
held about blocking Iran in Iraq, U.S. relations with Syria and Syrian
talks with Israel, and Central Asia, where both countries have
interests. But the most important message to the Europeans will be that
Europe is where you go for photo opportunities, but Turkey is where you
go to do the business of geopolitics. It is unlikely that the Germans
and French will get it. Their sense of what is happening in the world
is utterly Eurocentric. But the Central Europeans, on the frontier with
Russia and feeling quite put out by the German position on their banks,
certainly do get it.

Obama gave the Europeans a pass for political reasons, and because
arguing with the Europeans simply won’t yield benefits. But the key to
the trip is what he gets out of Turkey — and whether in his speech to
the civilizations, he can draw some of the venom out of the Islamic
world by showing alignment with the largest economy among Muslim
states, Turkey.


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