EU-Russia relations expected to deteriorate if McCain wins

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Europe might find it harder to maintain good relations with Russia if Republican nominee John McCain wins the US presidential election, according to scholars surveyed by EURACTIV. Despite McCain’s much larger experience of European affairs, Obama is widely considered to be more supportive of EU policies and better suited to improving the overall mood of transatlantic security relations.

Barack Obama could be a “genuinely transformative factor” for NATO, “which McCain simply could not be,” said Daniel Korski, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to the US State Department. 

As the “new kid on the block,” Obama would be better suited to “changing the mood music” and better engaging Europeans, Korski told EURACTIV. On the contrary, he said McCain was largely perceived as a continuation of the current administration, under which transatlantic relations have plunged to a new low. 

McCain more experienced on Europe

The high hopes Europeans are placing on Obama seem to be driven by an extraordinary “hunger for change,” according to John Glenn of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). However, this perception means that Europeans overlook the fact that McCain has much more experience of dealing with Europe, he argues. 

The 74-year old Republican senator and former Vietnam veteran can look back on almost 40 years of foreign policy experience in Congress, while Obama has not even completed his first term in the Senate. 

36% of Europeans favour McCain, compared with 47% of Americans. Both cited Obama’s inexperience as the main reason for which they would not vote for him, according to a recent HarrisInteractive poll. 

Critics also say that Obama has no genuine interest in European affairs, pointing to the fact that he did not organise a single hearing in his four years as chairman of Senate’s subcommittee on European affairs. 

US will cooperate more

Both candidates will “continue America’s return to multilateralism” if elected president, according to Korski. This would include improving relations with NATO, which went through their darkest period following the US intervention in Iraq, argued the scholar. 

But both candidates are also expected to ask for more burden-sharing from the Europeans, especially when it comes to additional troops for Afghanistan, said Korski, arguing that it would be harder to resist such demands from a President Obama. 

On the contrary, Europeans may be more reluctant to satisfy the same demands of a President McCain, who is still closely identified with the policies of the outgoing US President George W. Bush, largely due to his support for America’s intervention in Iraq, according to Glenn. 

Afghanistan, Russia and energy security will be key

Either way, the war in Afghanistan will continue to be NATO’s focal point in the future, scholars agree. Driven by fears that the country could become a failed state, the Bush administration has already reallocated troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. 

“Both candidates are likely to agree that Afghanistan will be the true test of the future of NATO and I think that both candidates are likely to turn to Europeans and say they need more from Europe,” Glenn told EURACTIV. 

He added: “I think that maybe a Senator McCain would possibly have a focus on the military aspect of what Europeans can contribute. But I think that both candidates recognise that today what is needed is not solely military or economic, but a combination of both, and I think that this will be the real challenge in how the EU can bring its expertise in.” 

However, European governments have so far resisted US calls to send more troops and drop their caveats over where those troops can be deployed. Germany, for instance, even ordered home special forces stationed in Afghanistan to assist the Americans in hunting down Al Qaeda terrorists. 

Warmer EU-Russia relations unlikely under a President McCain 

Future policy towards a more assertive Russia might become another contentious transatlantic issue, at least if McCain emerges as the winner on 4 November. 

He claimed to have looked into the eyes of former Russian President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, seeing not a soul, but three letters: K-G-B. Senator McCain has called for Russia to be isolated and kicked out of international forums such as the G8. He even toughened his language after the Russian-Georgian war, declaring: “Today, we are all Georgians.” 

Obama, on the other hand, has tried to avoid adopting an overly aggressive tone, voicing his preference for integration rather than isolation of the former Cold War enemy. 

47% of Americans back McCain’s approach of restricting international cooperation with Russia, while Europeans, though equally concerned about their more aggressive Eastern neighbour, are less inclined to talk tough on Russia (38% favour less cooperation). 

EU governments are split on the issue, with Nordic and Eastern European countries far more critical of Russia than EU heavyweights France and Germany, which traditionally enjoy very close relations with Russia. 

The latter also favoured the swift resumption of EU talks with Russia over a new partnership agreement, which were frozen following the Georgia conflict. A decision on the issue is likely to be taken at the bloc’s next foreign ministers’ meeting on 10 November, four days ahead of the EU-Russia summit. 

Both candidates favour NATO enlargement 

The different policy approaches taken by McCain and Obama towards Russia will also play an important role when it comes to future NATO enlargement, scholars argue. 

Both candidates are strongly in favour of further enlarging the alliance to integrate more former members of the rival Warsaw Pact, most notably Georgia and Ukraine, but a President McCain would be less likely to take into account Russia’s concerns here. 

The US lobbied hard to grant Ukraine and Georgia membership perspectives at the NATO summit in Bucharest last April, but failed to overcome opposition by several EU members, including heavyweights Germany, France and Italy, which were wary of worsening relations with Russia (EURACTIV 02/04/08). 

Russia had warned that the prospect of Ukraine’s NATO membership would create a profound crisis between Kiev and Moscow, with a negative impact on the security of Europe. 

Obama more likely to support European defence policy 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to use his EU Presidency to boost the bloc’s security and defence policy (ESDP) by strengthening the EU’s civilian and military capabilities, stimulating the European defence equipment market and updating the 2003 European Security Strategy (EURACTIV 06/06/08). 

Korski argues that Obama would likely be more inclined to support a stronger ESDP because he has a better understanding of the EU as a unitary actor, while McCain may rather focus on bilateral relations. 

The US has traditionally been ambivalent towards a stronger European defence and security policy. While demanding more EU burden-sharing when it comes to troop deployment, all previous administrations also stressed the primacy of NATO.

France sees an ESDP that can act more independently from NATO as vital if Europe is to assume a more active role, a view that is largely supported by Europeans. 

But Europe’s other key players have thus far been reluctant to follow, for different reasons. While Germany has been one of the strongest proponents of a stronger ESDP, it has proven reluctant to increase its defence budget, which also lacks support among German citizens. 

The UK, to the contrary, is willing to invest more in strengthening Europe’s capabilities, but only under the premise of not violating NATO’s preeminence. “The UK has the bizarre situation of having the most pro-European foreign and defence minister in a decade, but at the same time an openly EU-critical prime minister,” Korski explained.

NATO has been the linchpin of the transatlantic security relationship since the Second World War, but its legitimacy has come into question since the Soviet Union ceased to be a major adversary. 

However, NATO did not cease to exist as some scholars had suggested, but enlarged its membership to include former Warsaw Pact states and gave itself a global scope. In 2009, the alliance will celebrate its 60th anniversary at a summit in Strasbourg. 

The number of Europeans who consider NATO to be essential to their country's security has also risen recently (+4%), with Spain and France displaying the greatest increase (+11% and +8% respectively), according to a TNS poll conducted for the German Marshall Fund in June (EURACTIV 27/10/08)

Another positive sign came from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who last year pledged to return his country to NATO's military command structure, from which it withdrew in 1966 under President Charles de Gaulle for fear of American domination. 

  • 3 Nov. 2008: Informal EU foreign affairs ministers meeting to discuss future EU-US relations. 
  • 4 Nov. 2008: US elections. 
  • 10 Nov. 2008: EU defence ministers meeting. 
  • 14 Nov. 2008: EU-Russia summit. 
  • 20 Jan. 2009: Inauguration of new US president. 
  • April/May 2009: NATO celebrates its 60th anniversary at its summit in Strasbourg. 

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