A Crisis of Leadership in Democracies: Yours, Mine, or Ours?

  • Mar 22, 2010

    Last month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an impressive and largely up-beat speech on NATO’s historic role and, most importantly, its future.

    Surprisingly, at the end of her speech, Clinton added a final thought that did not appear to be part of the original text: “The world is in many crises right now, but one of the crises is a crisis of leadership, particularly in democracies.”

    Secretary Clinton’s statement appeared to be in response to the collapse of the Dutch government as it was unable to make a new military commitment to Afghanistan after its parliament had decided to withdraw its forces. But she easily could have been referring to any number of our allies in Europe. Across the continent, democracies are facing strong internal political headwinds that do not bode well for NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and for the transatlantic relationship more broadly.

    Secretary Clinton is right. Brussels, Berlin, Paris, London, and Washington…we have a problem. We have a severe crisis in transatlantic leadership.

    Take a look at Europe’s political and economic landscape in the first half of 2010 and you can understand why the leadership engines of Europe have sputtered.

    Yesterday, France held important regional elections where the political leadership of 22 regions was decided. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party won only 1 out of the 22 regions, and his personal popularity is now at 36 percent. With a significant cabinet reshuffle on the horizon and a likely readjustment of his governing priorities as he prepares to run for reelection in 2010, Sarkozy has more urgent domestic challenges on his mind. All of this unpopularity has been generated in spite of his decision against sending additional troops to Afghanistan this year.

    Although it is unclear when the British people will elect their new leaders (although May 6 appears likely), what appeared to be clear victory for David Cameron’s Conservatives has suddenly turned into a tighter race with one possible outcome being a “hung” parliament. So, the United States’ largest military contributor and partner in Afghanistan may be politically “hung” in a few months time as it confronts a growing budget deficit and anticipates making severe cuts in its defense spending. Crisis indeed.

    Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has managed to provide some leadership on Afghanistan—albeit less than desired—by providing additional troops, more military trainers, and economic aid. However, the chancellor has provided significantly less leadership on issues of importance to Europe (like the Greek financial situation) and within her own coalition. She too faces a critical regional election on May 9 that may deepen her coalition crisis. Leadership from Berlin won’t be coming anytime soon.

    To paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “you go to war with the Europe you have, not the Europe you want or wish you had.”

    With France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, distracted, it seems a perfect moment for the new and improved post-Lisbon Treaty European Union to step forward and provide that needed leadership. Unfortunately, the EU apparatus is presently preoccupied with its own internal bureaucratic wrangling and eurozone crisis.

    But if France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union are not exerting the type of leadership Secretary Clinton had in mind, the United States is not necessarily exerting the leadership the transatlantic relationship needs either. Although Clinton has done a fine job framing the importance of the relationship (her January 29 speech in Paris is a must read for the few who still follow transatlantic issues), her good words were quickly overshadowed (as was her Paris speech) when the White House announced it would forgo the next U.S.-EU Summit and when Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated that the “demilitarization of Europe…[is] an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st [Century].” Needed wake-up calls for Europe? Sure. Helpful in getting Europe to hew to the U.S. agenda? Not so much.

    But is this a crisis of leadership or is it a crisis of ownership and responsibility? Who exactly “owns” the solution to Afghanistan? Who is responsible for getting the future of NATO and transatlantic security right? For far too long, Europe has allowed the United States to “own” the problem in its entirety. But now the United States wants Europe to assume co-ownership of these challenges. The question to consider is whether Europe is willing and able to step forward to lead. Today’s Europe cannot. Equally important is whether the United States is willing to relinquish complete ownership and accept the operational and political inefficiencies of true partnership. It seems unlikely that the United States will “let go” to an uncertain outcome anytime soon. Perhaps from this transatlantic leadership crisis will come a new opportunity to reframe and renew this most “quintessential” of partnerships.

    Heather A. Conley is senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration.

    Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Heather A. Conley