Obama Asks for More

The NATO countries again face the debate over increasing spending on defense.

On his European tour – one of the last of his presidency – Barack Obama chose to give his hosts a piece of his mind. He brought up questions that are normally not included in the official comments of a U.S. president in his last months in the White House. Yesterday, in a 49-minute talk in the German city of Hannover, he praised Europe’s achievements since the end of World War II, and emphasized that all the European democracies should be aware of the dangers posed by populism, especially jihadism. He announced that accordingly, in the summit meeting this summer in Warsaw, the U.S. will ask each NATO member to contribute 2 percent of its GDP to the common defense.

At a time of painful adjustments in Europe, the U.S. president has decided to ask the members of the North Atlantic Alliance to spend more on defense. It is a more polished way of raising the issue than when he suggested in The Atlantic a few weeks ago that Europe is on the path to geostrategic irrelevance, and characterized as opportunists the European leaders who leave the struggle against jihadism and the costs of the system of common defense in the hands of Washington. The argument has been going on in the U.S. since the start of the presidential primaries for the November election. And there is a certain consensus among all of the presidential hopefuls. The histrionics of Trump, who in his foreign policy statements is practically proposing to convert the U.S. military into a kind of bodyguards for hire, shouldn’t obscure the reality that the next U.S. president will demand, more or less forcefully, that its European partners in defense increase their military spending. So Obama’s words in Germany are probably only a little ahead of an important policy directive from Washington to its allies in the coming months.

In this context, the announcement of the increase in the U.S. troop presence in Syria by another 250 troops brings the European partners to the threshold of another debate that they would probably prefer to avoid in these moments of general economic and political uncertainty: Is it necessary to intervene in the war being waged in the country ruled by Bashar Assad?

One of the advantages that U.S. presidents have in their second terms is that they no longer have to wait for the polls before speaking. It appears that Obama was feeling this on his trip to the United Kingdom and Germany, when he said that things don’t necessarily have to get better, and that “[d]angerous forces do threaten to pull the world backwards.” Among these forces, as Obama said in London on Saturday, is the populism on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic. And his diagnosis – using the words of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats – also serves as a wake-up call: “[T]he best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

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