Capstones: Sagamore Hosts European Foreign and Defense Policy Officials

July 2022

Sagamore recently hosted a gathering of members of parliament, foreign policy practitioners, defense officials and scholars from across Europe for thought-provoking remarks and insights on transatlantic and international security issues. As part of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, more than a dozen European policy-makers and policy-shapers took part in the event, which was steered by Sagamore Senior Fellow Alan Dowd. As host of the program, Rob Panos, Sagamore’s chief of staff, offered welcoming remarks. The International Center of Indianapolis collaborated with the State Department to connect the group with various civic, business and cultural groups in Indianapolis.

Dowd, who heads the Center for America’s Purpose at Sagamore, led off with remarks focused on the up-and-down nature of the American people’s commitment to and interest in Europe and NATO, as well as the serious strains American leaders have caused in the transatlantic relationship in recent years.

“Much was made—and rightly so—of President Trump’s declaration that NATO was ‘obsolete,’ his transactional treatment of allies, his undermining of Article V—which is the very heart of the North Atlantic Treaty,” Dowd observed. “President Trump’s rhetoric and policies badly stressed the transatlantic bond—in ways not seen in decades. Yet many Americans forget that in 2009, President Obama unilaterally pulled the plug on missile-defense plans for Europe—plans endorsed by the entire NATO alliance. Poland’s Defense Ministry called President Obama’s reversal ‘catastrophic.’ The Czechs angrily rejected Pres Obama’s watered-down Plan B as ‘a consolation prize.’”

Dowd noted that the Obama administration’s “lead from behind” approach in Libya and failure to enforce its own “red line” in Syria left NATO allies confused and “out on a limb.” And he pointed out that “President Obama’s decision to withdraw all of America’s heavy armor from Europe, to deactivate the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic-focused 2nd Fleet and to deactivate the U.S. Army’s Germany-based V Corps was a serious misstep, as many of us warned at the time.”

“Add it all up, and from 2009 through 2020, Washington was sending terrible signals to our allies in Europe—and our enemy in Moscow,” Dowd said.

Citing recent roll-call votes in Congress and fresh polling data, Dowd noted that even though Russia’s assault on Ukraine has triggered an increase in public support for NATO, sizable percentages of the American people and their elected representatives remain ambivalent about or flatly opposed to America’s transatlantic security commitments.

Dowd used this as a jumping-off point for a brief discussion of what he called the “centuries-old tension between America’s desire for independence and recognition of the benefits of alliances.” These benefits are on display today, he argued, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. And he detailed the many ways and places far beyond Europe that NATO allies are partnering with the U.S. and indeed bolstering U.S. interests.

While he noted that “America’s wariness with alliances is part of its DNA,” Dowd pointed out that “America pursued alliances from the very beginning. Many Americans forget—or never learned—that Benjamin Franklin traveled to Paris to negotiate an alliance with France.” He added that “NATO and other alliances built after World War II are neither a drain on America’s treasury nor a chain dragging America into war. In fact, by deterring hostile regimes, creating lines of defense beyond America’s shores, building confidence between old enemies, and generating sources of material and diplomatic support, these alliances enhance America’s power and security.”

Sagamore’s guests—who hailed from Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Sweden—offered a range of insights and perspectives on the complex security environment confronting the U.S., NATO and allies in the Indo-Pacific.

There seemed to be an overarching consensus regarding the need for increased transatlantic cooperation—especially in light of the chaotic and disjointed Afghanistan pullout—and for renewed focus on deterrence—especially in light of Moscow’s aggression.

One of the European officials pointed out that, even as the U.S. deactivated key units, Europe engaged in far deeper cuts and took a holiday from security after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, there was a general sentiment expressed about the need for European nations to carry more of the burden of transatlantic security.

Some of the policy-makers probed the important issue of NATO’s possible role in the Indo-Pacific and engaged with Dowd on the prospect for new security structures that might bind democracies in the Euro-Atlantic with those in the Indo-Pacific. There were interesting points made in this regard related to whether democracies in both hemispheres can collaborate to deter the threats posed by aggressive authoritarian regimes—and specifically, whether the so-called “Alliance of Democracies” concept can develop into a cohesive force to meet the shared economic, military, technological and diplomatic challenges democratic nations are facing around the world.

Others countered that in light of Russia’s war against Ukraine and threats against NATO members, the alliance needs to devote all of its resources and focus all of its attention on deterrence in the North Atlantic area, rather than spreading itself too thin. Indeed, there was an interesting exchange about the need for NATO to match the intensity and “burn rate” of the war in Ukraine by supplying Ukrainian forces with the quantity and quality of weapons they need to defend their territory—and to rapidly backfill and replenish NATO’s own inventories.

To read more on NATO and other international security issues, visit the Center for America’s Purpose website. For more on Ukraine, visit our Ukraine Crisis page.

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