The Obama team on the ground at the NATO Summit in Portugal is flying home pleased. It has been, the president declared, "an extremely productive two days" in Lisbon.
Indeed major goals
for the future of Afghanistan and the relationship with Russia have been met. For the former, there will be an ongoing, integrated relationship, a continued flow of aid, assistance, and training. For the latter, Russia, there's been a "restart" of relations, on ice for the last two years. Europeans and Americans hope that the chilly period between the U.S. and Russia has ended and will be significantly warmer going forward.
As the White House hoped, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announced Saturday its continued commitment to Afghanistan and affirmed the timetable for an "irreversible" transition to "full Afghan security responsibility and leadership" beginning in 2014. The plan has -- as Obama had pushed to achieve -- a leadership training component and relationship with NATO forces continuing beyond 2014. The continued commitment of troops on the ground, in any capacity, is seen as a tricky sell: European countries are wearying of losing soldiers in a fight where they no longer understand the rationale for their participation.
"We reaffirm our enduring commitment to Afghanistan's security and stability, which are directly linked with our own security," a joint statement issued by the ISAF declared. "We remain resolute in supporting Afghanistan as its security institutions take on increasing responsibility. Today we recognize the progress that has enabled this evolution toward transition and durable partnership, while we continue our efforts to counter those who aim to destabilize Afghanistan. Our UN-mandated mission in Afghanistan, which is at the request of the Afghan Government remains the Alliance's key priority. It is helping to lay the foundations for long-term security, stability and prosperity in an Afghanistan respectful of human rights, that will never again become a safe haven for terrorists and terrorism."
But Afghanistan, as important as it is, was not the only thing on the agenda for the 28 heads of state from NATO countries. Visiting Lisbon also was Russian President Dmitiri Medvedev
, whose presence was highly anticipated. It was the first time the Russians have met with NATO (a relationship officially called the "NATO-Russia Council" or NRC) since the violence in Georgia during the summer of 2008.
The results, at least publicly, were positive. "We, the Heads of State and Government of the NATO-Russia Council, met today in Lisbon and affirmed that we have embarked on a new stage of cooperation towards a true strategic partne
rship," the NRC announced this morning.
President Obama knows that back home he still has to deal with Republican resistance
to the new START treaty: its ratification was listed in the official statement as an essential component in the revitalized partnership. The president said he was pleased with progress toward a joint missile defense shield to protect both Europe and Russia, saying that the countries had successfully turned a "source of past tension into a source of shared cooperation."
For Washington and Europe the conversation with Medvev needed to be both substantive and courtly. "The time has clearly come to modernize our relationship and build a true partnership," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at the opening of the NATO-Russia meetings. Noting that the conversation was the first time a joint effort would be made between Russia and Europe to protect against missile attacks, Rasmussen said "We are laying the foundation for stronger ties" between NATO and Russia "than has ever been the case until now. This is why today marks a true fresh start in NATO-Russian relations."
The scene now shifts to U.S. domestic politics and the lame duck session of Congress. A news conference by the foreign ministers of Denmark, Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Norway, and Latvia urged the United States to recognize that approving the new START
has a lot to do with people on the other side of the world. "If the START treaty is not ratified, it would be a real setback for European security, and therefore, of course, we urge and hope that the U.S. Congress will be able to ratify the START treaty as soon as possible," said Lene Espersen, the Danish Foreign Minister. Added Janos Martonyi, the Hungarian foreign minister. "It's a general interest of my region, of Europe, and indeed, most importantly, of the transatlantic alliance. It's also a global interest, and I would very much encourage, for this reason, not to kill START before it starts."
It's not clear that such appeals will be heard by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), among others, who have declared the START treaty a no-go for the last weeks of this Senate session, despite appeals from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and, it might be said, many in the rest of the world.