Much global history is the product of politics and diplomacy carried along on a subterranean stream of quiet talks and deals that, apart from WikiLeaks, pop into view only when they fail and bad things – crises or wars – happen. But occasionally, international leaders stick their heads above this parapet and we get a look at where they think the world is now. These occasions are called summit meetings.
This is the right way to look at the NATO summit about to take place in Chicago. It’s not a one-shot attempt to solve the world’s problems, a unique chance to take momentous decisions. Rather, it’s a pit stop in history’s marathon, a time to assess where we’ve come since the last summit and where we want to go from here.
The Chicago summit may or may not produce great decisions. But it will force President Obama and his 27 NATO allies to recognize that we are living through a time of rather frightening change and that, if they cannot control this force, they have the responsibility to direct and shape it.
This spring, the Chicago Council has used the upcoming summit to raise these issues for Chicagoans and to define where this subterranean stream is taking us. There have been dozen of speeches and papers by world leaders, all displayed on the Chicago Council’s website (www.thechicagocouncil.org or www.2012summits.org). Some viewed with alarm, others soothed with optimism. I’ve had the fortune to talk with many of these leaders in interviews, also posted on the Council sites.
Consensus emerged on the sweeping issues that will face Obama and his allies during their weekend in Chicago. Less consensus exists on solutions. Here are some of the conversations:
For the first time in centuries, power – economic power now, political power later – is shifting from the West to the East. NATO is the West’s alliance. For 60 years, it’s defended and enforced Western civilization. As power pivots to the East and as America’s attention pivots with it, does NATO have a role, or is destined to be left behind?
Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning in the State Department, now professor at Princeton: “It’s really a pivot away from a decade of war and toward a global approach to security. In that process, we can’t go global without the Europeans. It’s the transatlantic alliance that is the hub of a global security network.”
But all this is happening at a moment when American governance is dysfunctional at best, broken at worst. When American leadership is most needed, the nation’s money-driven partisan politics makes leadership increasingly difficult.
Chris Patten, former EU foreign affairs commissioner, now the chancellor of Oxford University: “It very often looks as though you’re left with a can-do economy but a can’t-do politics. The dilemma is this, that I don’t think the world can manage successfully without American leadership, but American leadership can’t on its own achieve what is necessary.”
The United States once paid 50 percent of NATO military’s costs. Now it’s 75 percent. The U.S. has warned it can’t afford this anymore. But Europe is going through its greatest economic crisis since World War II. So who pays for Western defense? If no one will, does Western defense still exist?
Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO: “There is an element of self-interest here for the Europeans, that they need to advance their capabilities, because they’ll count on the United States and yet we won’t always be involved.”
NATO is one of the two great Western institutions. The European Union is the other. Both came into being to unite Europe into a post-national framework that would end the threat of wars on the continent. Now the euro crisis threatens to unwind European unity, just as the United States is shifting its focus to the East. Is history about to repeat itself?
Martin Wolf, columnist for the Financial Times: “The fear, whether justified or not, is that if the Eurozone were to break, it would end the idea that we’re moving steadily toward a more integrated Europe, and Europe would start to unravel……..and we would end up with chaos. For many people, it could be uncomfortably reminiscent of the situation before the first world war.”
In Afghanistan, NATO plans its major pullout in late 2014: the summit probably will confirm this. But what will NATO leave behind? What does this mean to Pakistan and its neighbors?
Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani journalist and author: “There can be no military victory in Afghanistan. The real things that the Americans should have done by now, such as building a sustainable economy, building a sustainable justice system, training sufficient numbers of Afghans to administer their country, have not been done. And that’s what I fear may lead to a breakdown once the American forces leave.”
Beyond that, what happens to this region if Israel attacks Iran just as any stability Western presence disappears?
Again, Rashid: “Chaos will ensue in the region, stretching from Lebanon across the Middle East to the Gulf Arab states to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Iran is preparing for guerilla action all across this belt.”
None of this deals with other looming issues, like global inequality or climate change. But it’s enough to force the men and women who will meet around the table in Chicago to look each other in the eye and ask:
Where do we go from here?