Published daily by the Lowy Institute

MH17: Could a re-energised Europe rescue the Obama Doctrine?

MH17: Could a re-energised Europe rescue the Obama Doctrine?

It is always morbid to talk of what ground nations might gain from disasters such as the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, but international politics has never been a place for the squeamish.

For US President Barack Obama, the attack has provided him with atypical room for patience as, curmudgeons like John McCain aside, many of his typically loudest Republican detractors seem willing to let investigators in Ukraine come to some definitive conclusion on the nature and extent of Russian involvement rather than criticise his supposedly weak foreign policy.

In the longer term there is a very real possibility that the legacy of the disaster might be a Europe that is more engaged in affairs to its east, and maybe even further afield, as its leaders become aware that their own interests are increasingly at threat from a rising tide of conflict and instability.

President Obama spoke in terms similar to these in a White House briefing shortly after the MH17 attack (which claimed the lives of 193 Dutch citizens, along with Belgians, Brits and Germans), calling it a 'wake up call' for Europe and warning that violence could no longer be contained to the continent's fringes.

This comes after the US had been left frustrated by the failure of European governments to match Washington's high-level sanctions on Russia, which enjoys the insurance of considerable interdependence with European nations that might otherwise challenge it, particularly concerning the supply of energy. [fold]

Just a day before the downing of the MH17, Obama reluctantly went it alone, beefing up penalties on Russia's energy and defence interests over its continued material and ideological support for the Ukrainian rebels, while Europe opted only for so-called 'Tier 2' actions that froze assets and banned travel for Vladimir Putin's closest offsiders.

Obama will have been pleased to see UK Prime Minister David Cameron's support for escalating to the tougher Tier 3 sanctions in light of the disaster, and calling for the continent to 'make our power, influence and resources count'. He will no doubt closely follow announcements out of Brussels, and indeed Berlin and Paris, to see how far that wave of indignation spreads.

Such a change in European fortunes could be considered overdue, with the continent largely a source of frustration for US foreign policy in the Obama years, despite the rapture with which Europe's leaders and citizens greeted his election after the disastrous relations of the Bush years.

Europe's continued economic calamities and political disunity have denied Obama much-needed support in tackling many of the international obligations from which he had hoped to remove the US in order to focus on the domestic sphere.

With a majority of Americans still favouring a withdrawal from foreign entanglements (according to the latest poll from Politico), stronger multilateral partnerships with Europe on security and other matters could be a shot in the arm for a somewhat floundering Administration. With Japan also coming to the party in the Asia Pacific — by moving to reinterpret its pacifist constitution and face up to the rise of China — it seems Obama might finally be getting what he wants on the international stage.

The problem now is one of time. With a little over two years left to run in his presidency, there may be far too little of it to achieve the vision.

Photo by Flickr user U.S. Ambassador Gutman.

You may also be interested in