Many people, myself included, hoped that Barack Obama's popularity abroad would enable the administration to get increased cooperation from our allies, thereby making key US foreign policy objectives easier to achieve. These hopes took a major blow recently when European NATO allies rejected the Administration's call to send more troops to Afghanistan:
US hopes of securing more troops for Afghanistan from its Nato allies were disappointed on Thursday as European countries refused to offer up many more soldiers despite pleas from Robert Gates, US defence secretary.
At a two-day meeting of Nato defence ministers in the Polish city of Krakow, Mr Gates said the new US administration "is prepared to make additional commitments to Afghanistan. But there clearly will be expectations that the allies must do more as well"....
However, other Nato allies, which have about 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, were prepared to offer only several hundred more to help secure the country during forthcoming elections...
During the campaign, Obama repeatedly emphasized that the Bush Administration had dropped the ball in Afghanistan and argued that it was imperative to send more troops there. He has made an Afghanistan "surge" the focal point of his War on Terror strategy. The fact that the European allies felt free to reject his pleas on this major priority at the very time when his popularity abroad is at its post-Bush peak is a very bad sign.
It's important not to paint the allies with too broad a brush. Some of them, such as Canada (2700 troops) and Poland (1600), have contributed combat troops out of proportion to their relative resources. It's understandable that these states don't want to give more. However, the big continental European states, including France (3300) and Germany (3500), have contributed very small forces relative to the size of their economies and populations, and have refused to allow even these limited contingents to actually be used in combat. Note that Canada and Poland (whose troops are deployed in the more dangerous eastern part of the country where combat operations are ongoing) have contributed almost two thirds as many troops as France and Germany, despite the fact that the latter have more than double the combined population of the former.
The allies' refusal to heed Obama's plea for more troops highlights the limitations of personal popularity as a tool for influencing allied policy. It also suggests that US-European differences over defense policy go beyond understandable anger over the flaws of the Bush Administration.
UPDATE: I can't put the point much better than NATO Secretary General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands:
NATO's exasperated secretary general, Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, said if Europe wants a greater voice, it needs to do more.
"The Obama administration has already done a lot of what Europeans have asked for including announcing the closure of Guantanamo and a serious focus on climate change," he said. "Europe should also listen; When the United States asks for a serious partner, it does not just want advice, it wants and deserves someone to share the heavy lifting."