Eyes of the world on Obama as he tours Europe

Ukraine crisis has put pressure on US president to show his resolve

Marine One lands outside of the Rijksmuseum, where US president Barack Obama and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte had a tour and bilateral meeting, in Amsterdam, yesterday. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Marine One lands outside of the Rijksmuseum, where US president Barack Obama and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte had a tour and bilateral meeting, in Amsterdam, yesterday. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Tue, Mar 25, 2014, 01:00

The persistent drone of circling helicopters enveloped the sky around The Hague yesterday as the leaders of the G7 group of countries gathered for a summit on nuclear security.

As home to more than 150 international organisations, the Dutch coastal city is used to dealing with the logistical challenges of high-level summits, but the level of security imposed in The Hague yesterday prompted many of the city’s long-term residents to escape for a few days’ respite.

Yesterday’s visit by US president Barack Obama marked the start of a four-day tour that will see him visit the headquarters of Nato and the European Union, before travelling to Rome where he will visit Pope Francis on Thursday morning.

As well as high-level diplomatic meetings, Mr Obama will squeeze in cultural excursions. One of his first stops was the recently reopened Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Tomorrow, he will visit first World War sites in Flanders and then the Coliseum in Rome on Thursday before leaving for Saudi Arabia.


Attitude to Ukraine
But while Mr Obama has left time for more leisurely pursuits, the eyes of the world will be on his pronouncements on Ukraine.

While this week’s visit to Nato and the EU institutions had been scheduled for some time, the Ukraine crisis has meant the trip has become a showcase for the US president’s stance on foreign policy.

Having opted not to intervene in Syria last year, Mr Obama, who has made his mark on foreign affairs by withdrawing US troops from conflicts rather than intervening, is under pressure to show his resolve.

The very fact this week’s trip is his first official visit to the EU’s de facto capital is proof to many of the US president’s prioritisation of Asia and the Middle East over Europe in terms of foreign policy engagement.

Yesterday, he underlined his continued commitment to Europe, and in particular the joint responsibility to collective defence between the US and its European allies enshrined in Nato. However, he repeated the call, that has been long levelled at the EU by the US, that Europe needs to increase its defence spending.


Diplomatic dialogue
Nonetheless, the presence of Chinese president Xi Jinping at yesterday’s meeting, and Mr Obama’s bilateral meeting with the premier, was an important element of the diplomatic dialogue. China has not extended its support for Russiato Ukraine, and could be harnessed as an important ally in the West’s response to Russia.

Despite the series of meetings between Mr Obama and EU allies this week, the US president may inevitably disappoint expectations in terms of the US response to the Kremlin.

Following last week’s moves by the EU and US, further economic sanctions are unlikely, though Mr Obama’s meeting with Nato will be watched for any signs of a strengthening of defence commitments in eastern Europe. This follows warnings from a Nato general about the build-up of Russian military at the Ukrainian border.

Of equal interest may be Mr Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia later in the week, where analysts will be awaiting any indications of developments in the US-Middle East policy, such as further support for the Syrian opposition.

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