Ambassador Kurt Volker’s Visit to Paris
On July 10th, 2013, the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States organized two events with Ambassador Kurt Volker, Executive Director of the McCain Institute and former United States Permanent Representative to NATO: a transatlantic breakfast debate on the future of the U.S. defense sector and the implications of sequestration at Hotel Le Bristol, and an inter-ministerial expert roundtable at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, co-organized with the Policy Planning Department of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The private transatlantic breakfast debate aimed at presenting the mechanisms and the consequences of the U.S military budget cuts on the U.S. defense industry to a dozen of high-level representatives from the defense, finance and energy industries. During his presentation, Ambassador Volker pointed out that Washington was currently lacking a clear strategic thinking in terms of defense cuts, and that the implications of the economic crisis have been aggravated by this lack of strategic framework. As a result, sequestration is permanent, and more cuts in the U.S. defense budget should be expected, with a tendency to spare the navy and air force – essential tools of the so-called ‘offshore balancing’ approach” – over the army and counterinsurgency capabilities.
However, Ambassador Volker reminded the audience that sequestration does not imply a sharp decrease of the defense expenses, but an increase at a smaller pace. He also criticized the absence of pro-active agenda for NATO both in terms of operations and investments, considering the withdrawal from Afghanistan the only explicit objective that drives the Alliance today. This fact stems from the diminished ambition of European states in times of economic crisis – preventing any coherent and capability-supported European foreign policy – and the global retrenchment of the U.S. The discussion also focused on the potential repercussions of a slowing Chinese economic growth on global economy and on the ongoing transatlantic free-trade agreement negotiations.
The inter-ministerial roundtable gave Ambassador Volker the opportunity to focus on U.S. leadership and the future of transatlantic relations and to discuss these issues with a dozen of French officials and members of different departments of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense.
After presenting the work of the McCain Institute, Ambassador Volker underlined the declining influence of the diplomatic elites (both within the Democrats and Republicans) in Washington D.C. As a result, the U.S. fails to present a coherent list of strategic priorities, and the administration’s agenda remains unclear as well as often reduces to the revival of the American economy. Analyzing the current state of transatlantic relations, Ambassador Volker stated that the Transatlantic Free-Trade Agreement constitutes a unique opportunity for the strengthening of U.S.-E.U. relations but the degree of difficulty it faces is largely underestimated. Transatlantic partners have an eighteen-month window to find an agreement and the normative issues will continue to create defiance among the populations. He also highlighted the American resignation that Europe will never deliver on defense capabilities, and that the post-Cold War agenda for transatlantic military cooperation is collapsing, with France and the UK the only willing partners in terms of security issues.
Ambassador Volker was asked to give his opinion on the U.S. engagement with nuclear Iran. According to him, the Obama administration has not shaped a real strategy between intervention and containment and the Syrian crisis has shown the reluctance of the West to act in the region. Besides, President Obama perceives himself as the president who ends wars, and the credibility of the Western intervention has been dangerously weakened in the negotiations with Teheran. Ambassador Volker also addressed the issues of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the U.S. pivot towards Asia. On the latter matter, he stated that concrete efforts to deepen the U.S. engagement in the region are yet to be seen and that the U.S. is not doing enough to make this strategy a reality.