WASHINGTON, DC – The most significant outcome of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Europe last week was his announcement that the United States and its European allies would establish a “regular NATO presence” in the Eastern and Central European NATO member countries. The move – a response to these countries’ call for concrete reassurance from the US following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea – sends a powerful message to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This is the first time that the US will place significant forces in the countries immediately surrounding Russia since they became NATO members almost 15 years ago. Similarly, this year – six years into his presidency – was the first time that Obama participated in a US-European Union summit meeting in Brussels. And NATO’s European allies have undeniably raised concerns about America’s strategic pivot from Europe toward Asia.
Obama’s announcement of America’s intention to bolster US allies’ security is significant and builds on the process of enhancing strategic cooperation that Obama has pursued throughout his presidency.
While perceptions are not irrelevant, actions matter more. And, over the last six years, the US administration has quietly built an infrastructure for NATO that enabled the bold steps that Obama has just announced.
The allegations that Obama had previously “abandoned” Europe focus largely on his 2009 decision to revise the missile-defense plans unveiled by his predecessor, George W. Bush. What critics overlook, however, is that the changes included new provisions for defending NATO members in Europe. And the system is already operational. Assets have been deployed off the coast of Spain, while others are under construction in Romania and will soon be introduced in Poland.
Moreover, whereas the previous missile-defense system was implemented through bilateral agreements between the US and host countries, and was highly divisive within NATO, the Obama plan has been endorsed by all NATO member states, and has contributed to the Alliance’s cohesion. Indeed, territorial missile-defense has now been established as one of NATO’s core missions.
The missile-defense system serves as a tangible manifestation of the transatlantic security commitment. The physical presence of US military personnel is at least as important as the system’s technical capabilities, which provide protection against short- and intermediate-range missiles from Iran.
Tellingly, when Obama first assumed the presidency in 2009 and learned that contingency plans for the defense of some eastern NATO members did not exist, he pushed for NATO to begin such planning for Poland and the Baltic states. This created the foundation for Obama’s recent declaration that such plans would be reviewed and bolstered.
Furthermore, the Obama administration and NATO leaders have taken steps to compensate for reductions in force numbers in Europe (which began long before Obama assumed the presidency). For starters, when the American troop presence in Europe was cut from four Brigade Combat Teams to two in 2012, a US-based rapid reaction force – which would rotate across the Atlantic for joint training, without perpetuating unnecessary Cold War infrastructure – was added. This is the force that Obama is now calling upon to augment security for NATO’s eastern members.
Obama also took steps to establish a security presence that could be built up when NATO allies needed additional military capacity. Perhaps the most significant step was the 2011 agreement establishing a US Air Force Aviation Detachment in Poland, the first full-time deployment of American forces in Eastern Europe.
This facility – one of Europe’s most modern – has already proved its utility in the context of the present crisis. Before Obama’s trip, the US sent an additional 16 F-16 aircraft with 300 US airmen there, and statements from Europe this week indicate that other NATO allies and perhaps additional US forces could be rotated through the facility.
Obama’s moves to bolster protection for US allies in Europe are a critical component of NATO’s broader response to Russia’s actions. And they are also in line with Obama’s long-term security strategy – the groundwork for which he has been laying for years.