A Shot Across the Bow in Munich

How Europe responds to President Putin’s comments over the weekend will say a lot about the future of transatlantic relations. It doesn’t look bright.

Anyone who has been engaged in the Russian-American dialogue for the last six months or so would not have been surprised by the content of President Vladimir Putin's speech at the Munich Security Conference this past Saturday. What was different was that complaints that have been voiced privately or in public by television commentators were pronounced by the country's president.

Given the downward course in U.S.-Russia relations over the last two years, that Putin gave this speech is not so earth-shattering. What is more important, in my opinion, is the reaction of what I believe Putin's intended audience to be-not Washington but European public opinion.

Much of the American response to the speech presumes the existence of a strong, single, integrated Euro-Atlantic security community (Senator McCain's remarks are a case in point). But last year Charles Kupchan argued in our pages:

The Atlantic order is in the midst of a fundamental transition. The transatlantic discord that has emerged since the late 1990s marks a historical breakpoint, not a temporary aberration. The foundational principles of the Atlantic security order that emerged after World War II have been compromised. American and European interests have diverged, institutionalized cooperation can no longer be taken for granted and a shared Western identity has attenuated.

What is interesting is the extent to which what Putin said in Munich reflects what is being said among Europeans in general.

An important litmus test for the United States-and for claims being made here in Washington that problems in the transatlantic relationship can be laid solely at the doorstep of the Bush Administration-is the response in the coming days and weeks to what Putin said. Polite disagreement, vehement rejection, studied silence? Even a quick perusal of European-based chat rooms shows the main split among English-speaking Euro-netizens to be between those who agree with Putin's assessments versus those who argue that Russia's own less than exemplary record in foreign and domestic policy do not give Putin the moral authority to launch any critique of the actions of the United States-one is much harder pressed to find defenders of American actions.

And as public opinion goes, what will be the impact on what governments do? And here the real test will be Iran. The Russians have concluded that the United States is prepared to act only if it can assemble some sort of coalition that can give the color of legitimacy to any actions that are taken-and that America's key European partners will need a clear-cut resolution of the United Nations to act, in the absence of some devastating act taken by Iran. By continuing to insist on diplomatic action-and by endorsing the thesis that U.S. unilateralism is a key motivator for states to seek weapons of mass destruction (for defensive rather than offensive purposes), Putin prevents the solidification of a solid Euro-Atlantic position on Iran.

Was Putin trying to speak for a European "silent majority" on Saturday? And will what he put on the record make it more difficult for European states whose populations are increasingly skeptical of U.S. intentions to cooperate with Washington's security agenda?

Time will tell.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.