Before the election, we were told that President Obama’s new diplomatic approach would line up our erstwhile allies to help in Afghanistan. Alas, it turns out that President Obama is good at attracting huge crowds of cheering supporters and fawning journalists, but no better than the previous administration at extracting substantive commitments from Europe:
Behind the display of revived transatlantic friendship, European leaders have proved reluctant to follow Obama in his first major foreign policy initiative, which in effect seeks to make Afghanistan NATO’s main mission of the moment. With a few exceptions, European analysts said, the leaders are ready to heed the U.S. call for more military help in Afghanistan only to the extent necessary to stay friendly with the new administration.
“The Europeans want to come back from the summit and say, ‘Look, we’re still tight with the Americans,’ ” said Daniel Korski, an Afghanistan specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The Americans want to come back from the summit and say, ‘Look, the Europeans are going to help with the new strategy in Afghanistan.’ ”
European officials said Obama is likely to come away from the summit Saturday with a broad endorsement of his idea that stabilizing Afghanistan is a strategic goal for NATO and support for his decision to devote more civilian as well as military resources to eliminating al-Qaeda havens there and in Pakistan. But they also said that summit pleasantries are unlikely to mask Europe’s refusal to commit to major new troop deployments.
(Via Hot Air.)
European leaders basically are saying, “stabilizing Afghanistan is a great idea; someone totally ought to do that.”
This is a classic instance of the free-rider problem. Europe knows that we will do it if no one else does, so why should they put themselves out? Military action abroad is expensive, complicated, and politically costly, so why do it when you know the United States will? Whatever animus may or may not have existed with President Bush, this was the real reason why we couldn’t get substantive contributions for Afghanistan from much of Europe, and it hasn’t changed with the new administration.
ASIDE: NATO did assist with Bosnia and Kosovo, because those conflicts mattered a lot to Europe, much more than they mattered to America. Even so, we did most of the heavy lifting.
Donald Rumsfeld recognized the free-rider problem when we created the ISAF to provide security for Kabul after Operation Enduring Freedom. Douglas Feith writes in his book (p. 156):
[The ISAF] would receive help from the United States, though American troops would not become part of ISAF. This last restriction was important to Rumsfeld. He reasoned that ISAF’s contributors would have less incentive to support the effort if they believed the Americans would join the force and the United States would therefore be likely to cover any shortfalls.
and (p. 157-158):
It soon became clear, however, that our critics wanted the United States to support the [ISAF] expansion by providing U.S. forces and funds to make it possible. This reflected the very frame of mind that Rumsfeld warned against: the Yankee can-do, fill-every-vacuum hyperactivity that deprives other countries of incentives to pull their weight in multilateral projects. . . One of ISAF’s key purposes was to allow others in the world to help the new Afghanistan. Rumsfeld did not favor reflagging U.S. operations — having our soldiers perform a mission and calling it an ISAF rather than a coalition effort — simply to make ISAF look robust. He told me he wanted ISAF to be useful, look successful, and take on more responsibility if it could, but as a serious partner, not functioning on the cheap.
Unfortunately, the ISAF did not fully satisfy those aims. The free-rider problem still existed because, although the ISAF was given responsibility for Kabul, the world still recognized that America was ultimately on the hook. Although some countries did make substantial contributions, we failed to generate the robust international effort we wanted.
The ISAF was not a complete success, but at least Rumsfeld recognized the need for a strategy to overcome the free-rider problem. In contrast, President Obama is looking to overcome it by sheer force of personality. It’s not impossible for that to work, I suppose, but it certainly never seemed likely.