President Barack Obama has yet to meet with the new head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and won’t see Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week, even though he is in Washington for three days. Stoltenberg’s office requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit, but never heard anything from the White House, two sources close to the NATO chief told me.
The leaders of almost all the other 28 NATO member countries have made time for Stoltenberg since he took over the world’s largest military alliance in October. Stoltenberg, twice the prime minister of Norway, met Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa to discuss the threat of the Islamic State and the crisis in Ukraine, two issues near the top of Obama’s agenda.
Kurt Volker, who served as the U.S. permanent representative to NATO under both President George W. Bush and Obama, said the president broke a long tradition. “The Bush administration held a firm line that if the NATO secretary general came to town, he would be seen by the president … so as not to diminish his stature or authority,” he told me.
America’s commitment to defend its NATO allies is its biggest treaty obligation, said Volker, adding that European security is at its most perilous moment since the Cold War. Russia has moved troops and weapons into eastern Ukraine, annexed Crimea, placed nuclear-capable missiles in striking distance of NATO allies, flown strategic-bomber mock runs in the North Atlantic, practiced attack approaches on the UK and Sweden, and this week threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Denmark’s warships.
“It is hard for me to believe that the president of the United States has not found the time to meet with the current secretary general of NATO given the magnitude of what this implies, and the responsibilities of his office,” Volker said.
Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined to say why Obama didn’t respond to Stoltenberg’s request. “We don’t have any meetings to announce at this time,” she told me in a statement. Sources told me that Stoltenberg was able to arrange a last-minute meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
According to White House press releases, Obama didn’t exactly have a packed schedule. On Tuesday, he held important meetings and a press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House (Ghani will meet with Stoltenberg while they are both in town). But the only event on Obama’s public schedule for Wednesday is a short speech to kick off a meeting related to the Affordable Care Act. On Thursday, he will head to Alabama to give a speech about the economy.
Stoltenberg is in town primarily for the NATO Transformation Seminar, a once-a-year strategic brainstorming session that brings together NATO’s leadership with experts and top officials from the host country. The event is organized by the Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Atlantic Council.
“The focus of this year’s seminar is to think through how best to update NATO’s strategy given real threats in the east and the south, against the backdrop of a dramatically changing world,” said Damon Wilson, a former NSC senior director for Europe who is now with the Atlantic Council. “The practical focus is to begin developing the road map to the next NATO summit, which will take place in Warsaw in July 2016, a summit which will presumably be the capstone and last summit for the Obama administration.”
Last year, the seminar was hosted in Paris, and then-NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen got a separate bilateral meeting with President Francois Hollande of France.
Last Friday, at the German Marshall Fund Brussels Forum, Stoltenberg talked about the importance of close coordination inside NATO in order to first confront Russian aggression and then eventually move toward a stable relationship with Moscow.
“The only way we can have the confidence to engage with Russia,” he said, “is to have the confidence and the strength which is provided by strong collective defense, the NATO alliance.”
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski told the Brussels Forum that there has been a worrisome lag between NATO’s promises of more defensive equipment for Poland and what has actually arrived, a blow to the alliance’s credibility. “It’s very important and necessary for everyone to have the conviction, including the potential aggressor to have this conviction, that NATO is truly determined to execute contingency plans,” he said.
The White House missed a perfect opportunity to reinforce that message this week in snubbing Stoltenberg. It fits into a narrative pushed by Obama critics that he would rather meet with problematic leaders such as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who will get an Oval Office meeting next month, than firm allies. The message Russian President Vladimir Putin will take away is that the White House-NATO relationship is rocky, and he will be right.