U.S. President Barack Obama will have a packed agenda when he goes to Lisbon for two days of summit meetings (Fri. 11/19 and Sat. 11/20) with NATO, the European Union and Russia. The leaders will address the progress of NATO's war effort in Afghanistan, its evolving relationship with Russia and the alliance's overall future.
One of the main issues at the summits may not be on the official agendas. It is not about nuclear weapons, superpower relations or terrorism. It is about U.S. politics. "Now, I am not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like they, like I did last night," he said.
Leaders meeting in Lisbon may wonder whether big losses by President Obama's party in this month's U.S. midterm elections have weakened his standing on foreign policy, according to James Goldgeier, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
"Well, I think what you are going to have, both from the allies and from Russia, is (that) they are going to be wanting to be trying to figure this out," he said. "What does this election mean for this guy? Can he accomplish the things that he is trying to accomplish?"
Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Washington's Brookings Institution, believes the president's damaged political standing at home will probably not interfere with his work on global issues. "On the other hand, he is still commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation on earth, he is still generally reasonably popular abroad, and there is still a lot of work and a lot of activity overseas that requires a major, assertive American role or it just cannot happen, including Afghanistan," he said.
The war in Afghanistan will be on NATO's agenda. Alliance forces there have suffered a record number of casualties in 2010, but have caught or killed several Taliban leaders, and progress is being reported.
Mr. Obama has sent an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, for a total of about 100,000. White House officials say the president still plans to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July, 2011, but the recent emphasis has been on handing over defense of the country to the Afghans in 2014.
Canada recently pulled its last troops out of Afghanistan, and the Netherlands will do so in 2011.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will be in Lisbon to meet with the NATO leaders, and Afghanistan will almost certainly be discussed.
It is not likely that Russia will send troops to Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union fought a costly nine-year war in the 1980's. But Michael O'Hanlon says Moscow is already helping NATO in many ways, such as allowing many supplies to move through Russia and its Central Asian allies.
"This is a huge benefit, given that we have 140-some-thousand ISAF forces now in Afghanistan, and also that we have complicated relations with Pakistan and do not want to depend entirely on them for logistics," he said.
Mr. Medvedev's participation in the NATO meetings is historic in itself. The 28-member alliance was founded in 1949 to defend Europe against a possible Soviet attack.
The Russian leader's visit to Lisbon will provide an opportunity to improve the NATO-Russian relationship, much like the recent "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations.
Missile defense will be on the minds of Presidents Obama and Medvedev, as well as the other NATO leaders. The alliance wants to ensure that any missile defense system will protect its entire territory.
Russia has opposed past NATO missile defense plans, which would have been deployed in nearby Poland and the Czech Republic. But the Obama administration has reconfigured its missile defense proposal to focus on the nuclear threat from Iran.
James Goldgeier says Mr. Obama is hoping for a commitment from his Russian counterpart to work with NATO on the issue. "That would be a huge victory for President Obama, not just for his overall policy, and not just for the NATO policy, but as a signal to Iran that Russia takes this threat seriously as well and wants to be part of missile defense," he said.
NATO leaders will discuss adopting a new Strategic Concept to guide the alliance's mission. It is likely that the new document, like its predecessors, will declare that an attack on any NATO member will be considered an attack on the alliance as a whole.
But the new strategic concept is also likely to make NATO more flexible to meet new threats, such as cyber attacks and terrorism, possibly coming from other parts of the world.
Before President Obama returns to Washington, he will meet with European Union leaders. They are expected to discuss economic issues, such as U.S.-European cooperation on currencies and exchange rates, as well as trade and development, security and other foreign policy issues.