Friends of the Earth Europe becomes a social movement? Part II

Where is the environmental movement heading?

Part II From Stockholm 1972 to Lenzen 2009

After the Stockholm conference in 1972 the environmental movement became confrontational and opposed atomic power, dam building and the cutting of trees in many parts of the world. In the 1980s the third world finally got better organised with the help of Friends of the Earth and the Consumer organisation in Malaysia who both were active in setting up Third World network in 1984. The odd days when environmental organisations were close to eco-fascist ideas was long forgotten, especially after that the Indian government in many aspects tried to implement much of the sterilization ideas with the result that Indira Gandhi’s government fell in 1977.

Gradually with the great help of tree huggers in India and tree planters in Kenya the environmental movement became more global with the interests of the global majority in mind. But at the same time at least the environmental movement in the West became more professionalized.

Tree huggers from India and Sweden in joint demonstration against European Roundtable of Industrialists motorway project in Western Sweden in 1987

By the end of the 1980s the politicians and business saw the need of responding to the growing global environmental concern. The Brundtland report issued by a commission in 1987 headed by the Norwegian social democratic prime minister launched the concept sustainable development. Now there was no more confrontations necessary, there were only a common responsibility for everyone to cooperate to bring about sustainable growth.

In 1992 a new UN Conference on environment was held in Rio de Janeiro, this time more well planned by business and politicians to create an atmosphere of consensus for free trade as a solution to the environmental crisis together with Agenda 21, a plan of action were everyone could find something for their own cause. Most NGOs were happy and thus the environmental movement allowed itself to become the main legitimating source for the neoliberal world order under the over arching label sustainable development.

In Sweden the independent environmental movement together with Finnish environmental and solidarity activists tried to oppose the Brundtland ideology but with little success. In Sweden environmental local groups started in the end of 1960s and established a national organisation in 1971 that split in 1976 due to strong criticism against top-down leadership. Environmental Federation (Miljöförbundet) was established that soon became a driving force in the anti-nuclear movement and protests against the use of pesticide in forestry. The organisation also took many international initiatives which resulted in the setting up of the International Secretariat on Acid Rain in 1981, European Youth Forest Action (EYFA) in 1986 and International Climate Action Days in 70 countries 1991-92 jointly coordinated together with Finnish organisations and EYFA. In many cases the Environmental federation was closer to youth environmental movements and third work environmental groups than to other Western environmental so called NGOs.  In 1995 Environmental Federation primarily based on local groups merged with Friends of the Earth Sweden primarily based on individual membership. Miljöförbundet Jordens Vänner was established.

Activists at meeting as a follow-up on Climate action days during 50 year is enough forum in Madrid 1994

At the time technocratic visions of how to solve the environmental problems became stronger at the same time as the movement had capacity to put forward qualified studies on how to change society.  The result was the ambitious air share studies carried out in many countries all over the world by Friends of the Earth Group with Friends of the Earth Europe in the lead.  The basic idea was that each person in the world had the right to her or his equal share of environmental space. This concept built on global justice enabled a vision were each nation should change its production and consumption patterns in such a way that the pressure on the ecosystem and natural resources should not exceed what was acceptable when every person in the world had equal rights to the access of these resources. But for some reason the main emphasis became technological instead  of finding social allies in a common struggle for the vision.

FoE Stockholm in the midst of a demonstration at the EU Summit in Amsterdam 1997

FoE Sweden and especially in Stockholm but also at national level continued to build alliances against the neoliberal strategies of corporations, EU, our own national government and at local level. What later has been labelled the global justice movement. We organised the European marches against unemployment through Sweden together with the syndicalist trade union and organisations for unemployed. In 1997 we went to the EU Summit protests in Amsterdam 1997.and in 1998 we participated in the establishment of People Global Action against ”Free Trade” and WTO  (PGA) in Geneva 1998. But we became more passive later when PGA mainly became  anticapitalist and less involved in building strong alliances on antineoliberal issues.

To us the environmental issue always have been connected to the issue of social justice both at the domestic and international level. Cooperation with other popular movements thus have been self evident and even part of our statutes, a fairly uncommon position in earlier days.

The doors to the commission in Brussels was very much open to environmental NGOs in the 1990s and sustainable development became a key word in many EU documents. Year after year well funded campaigns demanding Greening the treaty was launched by FOEE with the only problem that few if any of the members in the FoE groups mostly positive to EU fedearalism wree interested in engaging oin the campaigns.

FOEE AGM at Struga in Macedonia 2000

In 2000 I went to my first FoEE AGM in Macedonia at the Ohrid lake. It was a lovely place. The situation for the environmental movement on the Balkans was problematic and interesting. At the European level it was as often clear that FoE Sweden had the opposite position as many other FoEE groups. We together with FoE Norway and partly also FoE Denmark and FoE Finland were more sceptical towards EU or directly opposing EU as such. Already in the Rome treaty in 1957 market economy was placed above other issues. Thus if there was a contradiction between effective running of the market economy and social or ecological concerns the latter would be marginalised if one followed the treaty. As far as we knew EU had partly had good influence on environmental policy, at least in Southern Europe but in total the influence from corporations grew due to the way EU works and thus we maintained our opposition, much to embarrassment to big FoE groups as the German. To us it was less of a problem. When it came to actual issues we mostly easily could join the often hard criticism of specific EU policies or support EU against US in the hormone struggle. At a FOEE meeting during the EUI Summit in Gothenburg 2001 the controversies were finally settled and both parties started to know how to live with the difference of opinion concerning EU.

FOEE boat trip on the Ohrid lake at the AGM in Macedonia in 2000

Meanwhile UN tried again to organise a big conference on the environment, this time in Johannesburg 2002. It had not at all the same success as in Rio ten years earlier. One more Summit making unfulfilled promises on sustainable development and eradication of poverty did not have the same freshness any more. Instead Via Campesina and local anti privatization movements in South Africa strongly influence the alternative activities.

World Social Forum and European Social Forum became popular but we followed the phenomena mainly on a distance with exception of a few interventions and organizing of local social forums in Sweden. What made us sceptical was the strong dominance of a left that did not understand ecological issues and to eager to cooperate with the trade unions. We also opposed that the Zapatistas were excluded from social forums as they were an armed movement. In this way one of the main inspirators of the global justice movements and their closest allies were excluded and thus social forums split the movement rather than uniting it.

Young FOEE makes an actin during ESF in Malmö 2008

In 2008 European Social Forum was arranged in Malmö in Sweden. This time FoE Sweden decided to make an effort to make ESF more green. With the help of Via Campesina in Sweden and in Europe and FOEE we were able to achieve quite a lot.  There were a lot of action during ESF in Malmö, the climate street occupation gathered some 800 protesters, many demonstrated against a deportation center and a weapon factory in Malmö and Friends of the Earth and Via Campesina organized a joint youth camp. For the first time environment became part of the main slogan for the joint ESF demonstration. ESF in Malmö became more action-oriented and the cooperation in Europe on food souvereignity and climate justice issues towards the Copenhagen summit was strengthened. Many other popular movements also claimed that ESF in Malmö was positive for them politically. NGOs and political parties were less influencing the programme. There was a problem that a French delegate stopped a proposal from Via Campesina to organise a joint seminar at the beginning of ESF for all social movements on how issues linked to each other. Such a board common debate on current political issues were missing mainly due to the dominant and contradictory French influence in the process. But for most parts movements from eastern and Western Southern and Northern Europe came closer to each other.

Climate street occupation during ESF in Malmö 2008

Practically ESF in Malmö was much of a disaster. It ended with bankruptcy pushed for by trade unions that did not want to do the work needed for saving the economy afterwards. If it was not for the translators and cultural workers that did not get their expenditure paid one could laugh about the left and its incompetence in organizing and mobilizing to a political event. Filled with the latest fundamentalistic ideas about open space and attempts at depoliticizing the event by claiming that nothing was allowed to be predefined the left with trade unions and Attac in the lead organized their own failure with a lot of gestures about being horizontal, democratic and transparent. When there was a conflict between hiring a professional for doing the some of the website job or trusting the volunteer group the majority in the board choose the professional option, without having the money for it. The result was that the volunteers and the treasurer left the organisation and the website still took very long time to be established. The whole organisation imploded as the horizontal ideology of the left prohibited any political motivation for taking joint responsibility for the ESF and instead helped those that saw the event as a market place and open space for their own organisation. Those that choosed to oppose the treasurer and the volunteers in the information group had not thought about the consequences and had no experienced treasurer to put instead of the treasurer they forced to leave nor any volunteers to be able to establish an information group again. The organisation was on the brink of collapsing. After ESF when it was clear there was a deficit the very many promoters of the open space and professional horizontalism were no more to be seen. It became the local volunteer activists and those organisations that had opposed the expensive horizontal professional solutions and market oriented open space ideology that took the initiative to collect money for the debts while the Swedish trade unions did much for hindering constructive solutions and putting ESF into bankruptcy as fast as possible.

Exhausted ESF volunteers 2008

FoE Sweden had not much to loose on ESF showing itself to be incompetent as it generally is considered to be a project of the left although the World Social forum declaration is a lot broader than that. But leaving volunteers and cultural workers with a debt when there was something one could do about it was not seen as morally or politically the right thing to do. Thus FoE Sweden is still strongly involved in organizing a collection campaign for the ESF debts and a follow-up on ESF in Sweden. FoE Sweden also continued the political cooperation that started with many organisations in opposition to the anti-political side of the open space concept. With FOEE and Via Campesina the relations became strengthened through the cooperation at ESF It seemed as if there were new possibilities for wider international cooperation between popular movements and a new openness for this in Friends of the Earth.

Trade unions at the front of the ESF demonstration 2008

Thus when there was time for next FOEE AGM to take place in Lenzen in northern Germany I was interested and sent as a delegate for FoE Sweden. After almost four decades of involvement in local, national and international environmental movement and a decade after my first FOEE AGM in 2000 it was time to go and see what had happened to one of the key organisations in the environmental movement. In next chapter you will get a report from this meeting.

Friends of the Earth Europe becomes a social movement? Part I

Where is the environmental movement heading? To find out I went for the second time in my life to the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of Friends of the Earth Europe (FOEE) in June.

I claim that the environmental movement have its deep roots in Jainism in India 2 500 years ago and many other movements in different parts of the world. Many others claim that the environmental movement started in the 1960s and international were the establishment of Friends of the Earth International in Stockholm 1971 and the UN Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) the year after in the same city. By chance I happened to live in Stockholm at the time and became involved.

In these early days of international organizing of the environmental movement there were some trends:

All photos: Björn Gustafsson

1.We did have a lot of fun. Here we occupy some trees in the middle of Stockholm a year ahead of the UN Conference some 200 meters away from parliament. Main organizers were Alternativ Stad, (Alternative City) established in 1969 and today Friends of the Earth Stockholm. The municipality wanted to cut down seven elms in the city center. We wanted to stop them. They went to the government to get support for their decision. They got the support and the felling of the trees shuld take place some time in the future. Secretly they planned to do it quick with the help of the police. We spied on the prpearations day and night. One night they came. By telephone people were mobilized from all over Stockholm and some 800 people gathered to save the trees. Alternative city had mobilized most on non-violence values. When the motorsaws started to cut into the trees more few but dedicated militant actvists forced themselves with some use of violence through the police cordon. A motorized vehicle that should be used to help cut down the trees was destroyed. The motrosaws were taken out of the hands of the workers. While the militant actvists were able to get through the police lines hundreds of non-violent teenagers moved some meters forward. The first activist was able to climb a tree and occupy it. There were no chance to cut the trees that night anymore. The police gave up. It can be added althought the police used quite some violence using batons, dogs and their horse whips there was less violence than usual sometimes today in confrontations between protesters and the police. For one week the politicians talked about the threat against democracy. Trade unions leaders were mobilized against the tree occupants. At the same time a big party started under the trees and in total some 250 000 people participated. The politicians gave up. remade their decision and the trees still stand. Today the victory against police and a democratic decison according to official ideology is hailed by the municipality, by the some years ago merged national business and industry organisation, the environmental mopvement and in school books as an example of struggle for freedom and a just cause.

Official UN Conference venue in the parliamentary building

2. Over population was presented as a main if not the main global environmental problem by the dominant Anglo-American environmentalism. A book distributed in two and a half million copies world wide by Friends of the Earth forced sterilization of all men with more than two children in India was presented as a solution. The book was titled Population bomb and the author Paul Ehrlich was a key note speaker at many parallel events at the Stockholm conference. In its own official Friends of the Earth book Only One Earth the text did not go that far but over population exemplified with the masses in the third world was also here a big issue. Friends of the Earth also put themselves very close to the official propaganda surrounding the UN Confeernce. Thus the title of their book, “Only one Earth” was also the title of another book promoted by the general secretary of the conference, Maurice Strong. The conceptual framework was initiated by business think tanksas Aspen Institue who with the help of Strong could get strong influence on the offcial framing as one can see above the entrance to the offcial venue.

UNCHE general secretary Maurice Strong speaking at Hog Farm rally for Life at Sergels torg

2. US hippies, ”crowd control experts” from Hog Farm, a dozen of journalists from the same two newspapers that never wrote an article about the events, business think tanks and the official US delegation eagerly cooperated. Some of them were in the frontline on the streets trying to provoke confrontations with the police, others set up a youth camp and were selling drugs were the general secretary of the conference, a North American businessman made his tribute to the youth, many of them stormed the press conferences of alternative activities to support official US positions and finally occupied the the presidium of the alternative conference and all of them joined in a march on the streets for protecting the wale. All of them also tried to stop protests against the US ecocide in Vietnam were Agent Orange was used in the warfare against the Vietnamese causing the forest to disappear and genetic damage to the people. Some US academicians did a great job on the opposite side supporting the protests against the ecocide. Also the Swedish social democratic prime minister brought the issue up at the official conference to the harm of the US delegation. It is said that the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam was stopped before the war ended.

Hog Farm rally for Life at Sergels torg

Mass demonstration against US ecocidal warfare in Vietnam at Sergels torg

3. The dominance of Anglo-American environmentalism with little concern for social justice was overwhelming from the outset but lost a lot of its glamour during the conference.

Man looking at anti-US street posters at UNCHE

Barry Commoner, one of the US academicians speaking up against US ecocide and bringing social aspects into the global environmental movement, here at People’s Forum at ABF

4. The third world was very poorly organized but in the last minute an alliance between young theosophists and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, (WILPF) was able to get funds from the government allowing 60 third world participants from the ad hoc Oi Committee to come to the alternative activities. They were successfully able to question the eco-fascism of Paul Ehrlich as well as the socially neutral environmental scenarios made by the Club of Rome and in general Western environmentalism whether from the left or more oriented towards business interests blaiming the individual moral for environmental degradation. But the pressure on their participation and lack of organizational support had the result that their Oi Committee statement on Human environment was copied to late for the press conference and then lost until it was found 33 years later. The first third world attempt at influencing the organized global environmental movement was forgotten.

Young theosophist Jan Fjellander and Tagi Farvar from Iran, both Oi Committee

5. Before the Stockholm conference many environmental organizations looked upon environmental problems as technical. Thus to save the rivers nuclear power was seen as an alternative to construction of dams. Especially WILPF, the women’s peace movement, but also others changed the minds of the environmental organizations. Afterwards criticism of nuclear power and promotion of saving energy, sometimes even promotion of change towards another low energy society became central to the movement.

Anti nuclear power poster from the 1970s in the US, source Wikipedia

G20 Police violence and summary

Tord Björk | G20,global crisis,International action,police,Summits | Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

G20 protesters, Photo Vendela Procopé

You can find a summary of the G20 protests with many link at:

The Police violence at the G20 meeting became to obvious, at least when it was recorded on video. First the police claimed they had nothing to do with the death of Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller cought in a police kettle on his way home from work. Then when the facts about how Tomlinson died was kept secret a video filemd by a visiting North American banker was published by the Guardian showing how he was hit to the ground by a police offcier shortly before he died. Two weeks later a new video turned up showing how another police officer at a vigil for Tomlinson one day after he died slapped a woman in the face and the hit here legs with a baton. These two occasions are just two that happened to be recorded closely on video. There were a lot more. One can find the assault on the climate camp at the G20 protest on You tube and many more.

The two police officers guilty of hitting Tomlinson and the woman were suspended. Also many people normally supporting the police became offended by the way the polic behaved. Protests have grown not only criticizing single events and police offciers but the whole police strategy.

The documentation and protests against police attack on the Climate camp outside the EU climate exchange helped promoting a more far reaching debate. Above you see a climate camper being hit by the police, below you can find the Youtube video made by climate camp legal team;”

The way the claimed independent police watchdog IPCC handled the situation is less criticised. After the death of Tomlinson they immediatly backed the police version. They even criticises the Guardian for upsetting Tomlinson’s family when the newspaper started to publicize picture that questioned the police version. They also told other jporunalists that there is “nothing in the story” that he had been assaulted by an officer. When the video finally appeared IPCC had to give up their role as police PR agency and go back to its role as police watch dog.

IPCC have a criticized history. The Tomlinson story spread rapidly all over the world but especially in one country. In Brazil it reignited anger over the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician who was shot dead with intent by police officers inside Stockwell underground station in London in 2005. At this occasion IPCC also backed the false police versions that claimed that Menezes had behaved in any way suspiscious, running etc. It became clear that in the age of War on terror anyone can get murdeed by the state anywhere without behaving in anyway wrong and nothing will really happen more than that so called independent police wathdogs will claim that the police did everything right until others do the wathdog job and they have to change opinion. In the case of Menezes the first IPCC inquiry came to the conclusion that no offcier involved in the shooting had done nothing wrong.  The second inquiry criticised the police command structure and communications to the public. The truth when came out out late and the impunity for the police remained intact.

For more details:

Obama’s Strategy and the Summits

Tord Björk | G20,global crisis,International action | Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

A new G20 meeting takes place. Here an analysis of the Summit this spring.

There has been a lot of comments and analysis on the G20 Summit in London in April 2009. This one from Statfor, a US think tank takes up some different angles quite uncommon in Europe. Its realistic assessment of how EU actually is divided and how key countries as Germany dominate in a struggle for stopping EU efforts to bail out CEE central banks. Instead Germany and EU countries that in fact controls much of the CEE economy and have gained much profit from bank operations in these copuntries now wants IMF to save them from loosing their money. Ruffly 80 per cent of current IMF laons have gone to CEE countries.

G20 protesters in London, Photo by Vendela Procopé

By George Friedman, April 6, 2009

The weeklong extravaganza of G-20, NATO, EU, U.S. and Turkey meetings has almost ended. The spin emerging from the meetings, echoed in most of the media, sought to portray the meetings as a success and as reflecting a re-emergence of trans-Atlantic unity.

The reality, however, is that the meetings ended in apparent unity because the United States accepted European unwillingness to compromise on key issues. U.S. President Barack Obama wanted the week to appear successful, and therefore backed off on key issues; the Europeans did the same. Moreover, Obama appears to have set a process in motion that bypasses Europe to focus on his last stop: Turkey.
Berlin, Washington and the G-20

Let’s begin with the G-20 meeting, which focused on the global financial crisis. As we said last year, there were many European positions, but the United States was reacting to Germany’s. Not only is Germany the largest economy in Europe, it is the largest exporter in the world. Any agreement that did not include Germany would be useless, whereas an agreement excluding the rest of Europe but including Germany would still be useful.

Two fundamental issues divided the United States and Germany. The first was whether Germany would match or come close to the U.S. stimulus package. The United States wanted Germany to stimulate its own domestic demand. Obama feared that if the United States put a stimulus plan into place, Germany would use increased demand in the U.S. market to expand its exports. The United States would wind up with massive deficits while the Germans took advantage of U.S. spending, thus letting Berlin enjoy the best of both worlds. Washington felt it had to stimulate its economy, and that this would inevitably benefit the rest of the world. But Washington wanted burden sharing. Berlin, quite rationally, did not. Even before the meetings, the United States dropped the demand

Germany was not going to cooperate.

The second issue was the financing of the bailout of the Central European banking system, heavily controlled by eurozone banks and part of the EU financial system. The Germans did not want an EU effort to bail out the banks. They wanted the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail out a substantial part of the EU financial system instead. The reason was simple: The IMF receives loans from the United States, as well as China and Japan, meaning the Europeans would be joined by others in underwriting the bailout. The United States has signaled it would be willing to contribute $100 billion to the IMF, of which a substantial portion would go to Central Europe. (Of the current loans given by the IMF, roughly 80 percent have gone to the struggling economies in Central Europe.) The United States therefore essentially has agreed to the German position.
Later at the NATO meeting, the Europeans — including Germany — declined to send substantial forces to Afghanistan. Instead, they designated a token force of 5,000, most of whom are scheduled to be in Afghanistan only until the August elections there, and few of whom actually would be engaged in combat operations. This is far below what Obama had been hoping for when he began his presidency.

Agreement was reached on collaboration in detecting international tax fraud and on further collaboration in managing the international crisis, however. But what that means remains extremely vague — as it was meant to be, since there was no consensus on what was to be done. In fact, the actual guidelines will still have to be hashed out at the G-20 finance ministers’ meeting in Scotland in November. Intriguingly, after insisting on the creation of a global regulatory regime — and with the vague U.S. assent — the European Union failed to agree on European regulations. In a meeting in Prague on April 4, the United Kingdom rejected the regulatory regime being proposed by Germany and France, saying it would leave the British banking system at a disadvantage.
Overall, the G-20 and the NATO meetings did not produce significant breakthroughs. Rather than pushing hard on issues or trading concessions — such as accepting Germany’s unwillingness to increase its stimulus package in return for more troops in Afghanistan — the United States failed to press or bargain. It preferred to appear as part of a consensus rather than appear isolated. The United States systematically avoided any appearance of disagreement.

The reason there was no bargaining was fairly simple: The Germans were not prepared to bargain. They came to the meetings with prepared positions, and the United States had no levers with which to move them. The only option was to withhold funding for the IMF, and that would have been a political disaster (not to mention economically rather unwise). The United States would have been seen as unwilling to participate in multilateral solutions rather than Germany being seen as trying to foist its economic problems on others. Obama has positioned himself as a multilateralist and can’t afford the political consequences of deviating from this perception. Contributing to the IMF, in these days of trillion-dollar bailouts, was the lower-cost alternative. Thus, the Germans have the U.S. boxed in.

The political aspect of this should not be underestimated. George W. Bush had extremely bad relations with the Europeans (in large part because he was prepared to confront them). This was Obama’s first major international foray, and he could not let it end in acrimony or wind up being seen as unable to move the Europeans after running a campaign based on his ability to manage the Western coalition. It was important that he come home having reached consensus with the Europeans. Backing off on key economic and military demands gave him that “consensus.”
Turkey and Obama’s Deeper Game

But it was not simply a matter of domestic politics. It is becoming clear that Obama is playing a deeper game. A couple of weeks before the meetings, when it had become obvious that the Europeans were not going to bend on the issues that concerned the United States, Obama scheduled a trip to Turkey. During the EU meetings in Prague, Obama vigorously supported the Turkish application for EU membership, which several members are blocking on grounds of concerns over human rights and the role of the military in Turkey. But the real reason is that full membership would open European borders to Turkish migration, and the Europeans do not want free Turkish migration. The United States directly confronted the Europeans on this matter.
During the NATO meeting, a key item on the agenda was the selection of a new alliance secretary-general. The favorite was former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Turkey opposed his candidacy because of his defense on grounds of free speech of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed published in a Danish magazine. NATO operates on consensus, so any one member can block just about anything. The Turks backed off the veto, but won two key positions in NATO, including that of deputy secretary-general.

So while the Germans won their way at the meetings, it was the Turks who came back with the most. Not only did they boost their standing in NATO, they got Obama to come to a vigorous defense of the Turkish application for membership in the European Union, which of course the United States does not belong to. Obama then flew to Turkey for meetings and to attend a key international meeting that will allow him to further position the United States in relation to Islam.

G20 protesters, Photo by Vendela Procopé

The Russian Dimension

Let’s diverge to another dimension of these talks, which still concerns Turkey, but also concerns the Russians. While atmospherics after the last week’s meetings might have improved, there was certainly no fundamental shift in U.S.-Russian relations. The Russians have rejected the idea of pressuring Iran over its nuclear program in return for the United States abandoning its planned ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The United States simultaneously downplayed the importance of a Russian route to Afghanistan. Washington said there were sufficient supplies in Afghanistan and enough security on the Pakistani route such that the Russians weren’t essential for supplying Western operations in Afghanistan. At the same time, the United States reached an agreement with Ukraine for the transshipment of supplies — a mostly symbolic gesture, but one guaranteed to infuriate the Russians at both the United States and Ukraine. Moreover, the NATO communique did not abandon the idea of Ukraine and Georgia being admitted to NATO, although the German position on unspecified delays to such membership was there as well. When Obama looks at the chessboard, the key emerging challenge remains Russia.

The Germans are not going to be joining the United States in blocking Russia. Between dependence on Russia for energy supplies and little appetite for confronting a Russia that Berlin sees as no real immediate threat to Germany, the Germans are not going to address the Russian question. At the same time, the United States does not want to push the Germans toward Russia, particularly in confrontations ultimately of secondary importance and on which Germany has no give anyway. Obama is aware that the German left is viscerally anti-American, while Merkel is only pragmatically anti-American — a small distinction, but significant enough for Washington not to press Berlin.
At the same time, an extremely important event between Turkey and Armenia looks to be on the horizon. Armenians had long held Turkey responsible for the mass murder of Armenians during and after World War I, a charge the Turks have denied. The U.S. Congress for several years has threatened to pass a resolution condemning Turkish genocide against Armenians. The Turks are extraordinarily sensitive to this charge, and passage would have meant a break with the United States. Last week, they publicly began to discuss an agreement with the Armenians, including diplomatic recognition, which essentially disarms the danger from any U.S. resolution on genocide. Although an actual agreement hasn’t been signed just yet, anticipation is building on all sides.
The Turkish opening to Armenia has potentially significant implications for the balance of power in the Caucasus. The August 2008 Russo-Georgian war created an unstable situation in an area of vital importance to Russia. Russian troops remain deployed, and NATO has called for their withdrawal from the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. There are Russian troops in Armenia, meaning Russia has Georgia surrounded. In addition, there is talk of an alternative natural gas pipeline network from Azerbaijan to Europe.

Turkey is the key to all of this. If Ankara collaborates with Russia, Georgia’s position is precarious and Azerbaijan’s route to Europe is blocked. If it cooperates with the United States and also manages to reach a stable treaty with Armenia under U.S. auspices, the Russian position in the Caucasus is weakened and an alternative route for natural gas to Europe opens up, decreasing Russian leverage against Europe.

From the American point of view, Europe is a lost cause since internally it cannot find a common position and its heavyweights are bound by their relationship with Russia. It cannot agree on economic policy, nor do its economic interests coincide with those of the United States, at least insofar as Germany is concerned. As far as Russia is concerned, Germany and Europe are locked in by their dependence on Russian natural gas. The U.S.-European relationship thus is torn apart not by personalities, but by fundamental economic and military realities. No amount of talking will solve that problem.

The key to sustaining the U.S.-German alliance is reducing Germany’s dependence on Russian natural gas and putting Russia on the defensive rather than the offensive. The key to that now is Turkey, since it is one of the only routes energy from new sources can cross to get to Europe from the Middle East, Central Asia or the Caucasus. If Turkey — which has deep influence in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Ukraine, the Middle East and the Balkans — is prepared to ally with the United States, Russia is on the defensive and a long-term solution to Germany’s energy problem can be found. On the other hand, if Turkey decides to take a defensive position and moves to cooperate with Russia instead, Russia retains the initiative and Germany is locked into Russian-controlled energy for a generation.

Therefore, having sat through fruitless meetings with the Europeans, Obama chose not to cause a pointless confrontation with a Europe that is out of options. Instead, Obama completed his trip by going to Turkey to discuss what the treaty with Armenia means and to try to convince the Turks to play for high stakes by challenging Russia in the Caucasus, rather than playing Russia’s junior partner.

This is why Obama’s most important speech in Europe was his last one, following Turkey’s emergence as a major player in NATO’s political structure. In that speech, he sided with the Turks against Europe, and extracted some minor concessions from the Europeans on the process for considering Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Why Turkey wants to be an EU member is not always obvious to us, but they do want membership. Obama is trying to show the Turks that he can deliver for them. He reiterated — if not laid it on even more heavily — all of this in his speech in Ankara. Obama laid out the U.S. position as one that recognized the tough geopolitical position Turkey is in and the leader that Turkey is becoming, and also recognized the commonalities between Washington and Ankara. This was exactly what Turkey wanted to hear.

The Caucasus is far from the only area to discuss. Talks will be held about blocking Iran in Iraq, U.S. relations with Syria and Syrian talks with Israel, and Central Asia, where both countries have interests. But the most important message to the Europeans will be that Europe is where you go for photo opportunities, but Turkey is where you go to do the business of geopolitics. It is unlikely that the Germans and French will get it. Their sense of what is happening in the world is utterly Eurocentric. But the Central Europeans, on the frontier with Russia and feeling quite put out by the German position on their banks, certainly do get it.

Obama gave the Europeans a pass for political reasons, and because arguing with the Europeans simply won’t yield benefits. But the key to the trip is what he gets out of Turkey — and whether in his speech to the civilizations, he can draw some of the venom out of the Islamic world by showing alignment with the largest economy among Muslim states, Turkey.

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