WASHINGTON — With the long history of battles for democracy in Europe shadowing him, President Barack Obama on Monday embarks on a week-long trip to Poland, Belgium and France that he hopes will convince the world that the United States remains a bulwark defending democratic government at the same time it closes the book on more than a decade of war.
The trip, which begins with a visit to Warsaw on the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first democratic elections and concludes with events in Normandy marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day, comes just days after Obama unveiled a new vision for American foreign policy at the U.S. Military Academy.
The president’s argument that the United States can strike an effective balance between global leadership and “foreign entanglements” will be immediately tested by a European public skeptical that the country will do what is necessary to rebuff the encroachments of Vladimir Putin’s Russia into Ukraine and, more broadly, Eastern Europe.
Obama, who would prefer to focus U.S. foreign policy on other threats and opportunities, is being thrust into a role that was played more comfortably by predecessors in the defining years of the Cold War.
His remarks Wednesday in Warsaw, just a few hundred miles from Ukraine and the old borders of the Soviet Union, have the potential to resonate like similar speeches by Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy at the Brandenburg Gate decades ago. But some Europeans are not certain that Obama will embrace that mantle.
“The European mood has moved from seeing America as doing too much under George W. Bush to America doing too little under Barack Obama,” said Dominique Moisi, co-founder of the French Institute of International Relations.
Moisi added: “I think there is growing skepticism that to confront Putin, America may not be best represented by a lawyer with a great intellect but who is maybe not strong enough to face the harsh geopolitics of the moment.”
Senior U.S. officials, however, say Obama will make absolutely clear that he remains firmly committed to the defense of democracy and self-rule in Europe.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategy communications, said that in Europe, Obama will “have a chance to reaffirm America’s unwavering commitment to secure democracy and to the security of our Eastern Europe allies, recognizing that Poland, as much as any nation, understands that democracy is something that needs to be constantly defended and constantly advanced.”
The trip itself is a reminder of how quickly things have changed. Obama was set to attend the Group of Eight meeting in Sochi, Russia, but that plan was scuttled after the Ukraine crisis broke out. After meeting with Central and Eastern European heads of state in Warsaw — including Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko — Obama will attend a Group of Seven meeting in Brussels.
In Poland, however, leaders hope that Obama will go beyond rhetoric and commit to an increased military presence in the region to protect the interests of Eastern and Central Europe against Russia. Nobel Prize laureate Lech Walesa, who helped bring democracy to Poland and was its second president, told the Associated Press late last month that “the world is disorganized and the superpower is not taking the lead.”
In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States has modestly bolstered its presence in Central Europe, sending several hundred troops on a rotational basis and a group of F-16 fighter jets for joint exercises. But Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Obama would face pressure to do much more this week.
“They need the physical reassurance,” she said of the Eastern and Central Europeans. “This is the first time we have really been called, or NATO has been called, to reinforce its eastern border, and potentially we’ll have to reinforce it for a very long time.”
Other experts argued that Obama, in his remarks at West Point, offered a highly articulate vision of the need to work through international organizations to enforce global norms. But, they said, Obama has been far less clear about how he aims to respond when countries such as Syria or Russia shirk those laws.
“During the Cold War, the issue wasn’t only deterring the Soviets but reassuring our allies,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University. “That reassurance is missing right now. And the Europeans feel it palpably.”
U.S. officials would not say what, if any, new commitments the United States or Western European allies would make while in Poland. But they said Obama’s approach would reflect the principles he outlined last week. “You heard the president at West Point talk about how American leadership can work together, as well as a set of common values, a commitment to democracy and human rights,” Rhodes said. “And I think on this trip you will see a concrete manifestation of what the president was talking about.”
Ukraine is also likely to dominate the agenda at the G-7 meeting in Brussels on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday, although it is likely to be joined by discussions over intelligence, energy, climate change and trade.
Obama is likely to continue to put pressure on his European counterparts to be prepared to intensify sanctions against Russia if it escalates its intervention in Ukraine, although no new sanctions are seen in the near future.
On Friday, Obama is scheduled to attend and make remarks at D-Day festivities at Omaha Beach in Normandy — a visit that will pay tribute to the U.S. servicemen who helped liberate France.
The visit, however, comes in the shadow of the scandal over wait times and doctored records at the Department of Veterans Affairs back in the United States.