Does the U.S. genuinely want its European allies to police their geopolitical backyard? When it comes to the Syrian crisis, the answer seems to be no. Last week, the Obama administration signaled that it intends to set the diplomatic pace over Syria as the U.S. and Russia announced joint plans for a peace conference. This was not only an accommodating gesture to the Russians—who, as I argued in this column last week, have made immense political capital out of the conflict—but also a setback for Britain and France, which have agitated for a more hawkish Western line, including arming the Syrian rebels.
British and French diplomats have little choice but to go along with the Russo-American proposal. If the conference is a failure, they may argue that it reinforces the case for a more aggressive approach. But regardless of the outcome, they may also reflect on the paradox that while the Obama administration has frequently called for Europe to take more responsibility for its own security, Washington is often nervous about the results.
Throughout President Barack Obama’s first term, senior American officials emphasized the need for Europe to increase its diplomatic and military capabilities. Playing the good cop, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made considerable efforts to boost the European Union’s nascent External Action Service and its oft-criticized foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. Clinton's first counterpart at the Department of Defense, Robert Gates, was the bad cop, making a series of forthright criticisms about Europe’s lack of military clout as he neared retirement in 2011.