In his remarks in Bucharest, the US Vice President Biden celebrated the democratic and economic development of Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism twenty years ago. The Vice President made very clear that the United States would not accept spheres of influence, would take no decisions about the region without its involvement, and that it valued the partnership of key countries in the region on critical issues. Perhaps most importantly, the Vice President stressed that the United States now looks for what it can do with Central and Eastern Europe, rather than what it can do for the countries of the region. This important distinction by the Vice President demonstrates the growing normalization of U.S. relationship with Central Europe and further blurs the once profound divisions of the Continent.
When the Obama administration announced it would seek to ‘reset’ relations with Russia, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe wondered how that policy would impact their relationship with the United States. Many countries in the region feared their strong ties with Washington would be downgraded in favor of closer U.S-Russian relations. To ease those concerns, President Obama sent Vice President Obama to Georgia and Ukraine to deliver a message of support and reassurance after his visit to Moscow in July.
When the President unveiled his new architecture for European missile defense last month and scrapped the existing Bush plan, many allies in Central and Eastern Europe assumed their worst fears had materialized. The sloppy and ill-timed nature of the administration’s announcement of its missile defense policy only reinforced the feelings of bitterness and betrayal among Atlanticists in Central and Eastern Europe. No matter how much the Obama administration claimed the decision had nothing to do with Russia, Moscow made sure to broadcast its opinion that America had conceded to its demands.
Once again, Vice President Joe Biden came to the rescue of the President’s troubled policy for Central and Eastern Europe, making an important trip to the Czech Republic, Poland, and Romania to reassure America’s nervous allies of its enduring commitment to the region’s security. In his remarks in Bucharest, the Vice President celebrated the democratic and economic development of the region since the fall of Communism twenty years ago. The Vice President made very clear that the United States would not accept spheres of influence, would take no decisions about the region without its involvement, and that it valued the partnership of key countries in the region on critical issues. Perhaps most importantly, the Vice President stressed that the United States now looks for what it can do with Central and Eastern Europe, rather than what it can do for the countries of the region. This important distinction by the Vice President demonstrates the growing normalization of U.S. relationship with Central Europe and further blurs the once profound divisions of the Continent.
The ‘normalization’ of the relationship between the United States and Central and Eastern Europe is an important legacy of Presidency of George W. Bush. Despite Bush’s low standing and popularity across the Continent, his extensive outreach and focus on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe enhanced their stature, developed their capabilities, and helped transform them into more equal partners in Europe and within the transatlantic Alliance. During the dark moments of 2003 when the Bush administration campaigned for international support to take military action against Iraq, a strong contingent of Central and Eastern European nations defied the veiled threats and scorn of French President Jacques Chirac and publicly backed the United States. This impressive show of independence, coming at a time when these countries still stood outside of the European Union and NATO, demonstrated the growing confidence of the region’s political leadership. Whatever one thinks of the actual decision to go to war, or of Washington’s exploitation of the Continent’s lamentable inability to speak with one voice, the region’s growing diplomatic assertiveness and independence proved an important legacy of the visible support and backing of the Bush administration.
The Bush administration came to value Central and Eastern Europe for its strategic partnership on missile defense, its military participation with few or no caveats in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the region’s backing for the western integration of Georgia and Ukraine. The missile defense relationship took on particular importance as it not only made the Czech Republic and Poland key actors in countering ballistic missile proliferation, but also would have forged a bilateral security relationship with the United States. Nevertheless, by characterizing the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as ‘New Europe’ in contrast to the ‘Old Europe’ with which America had been allied since the earliest days of the Cold War, President Bush and his administration extended an intellectual division of the Continent and caused harm to the region’s relations with its neighbors. By exploiting the support of key allies in Central and Eastern Europe for its political projects in the face of opposition from allies such as Germany and France, the administration offended key West European nations. And by partnering with regional leaders such as Poland on NATO enlargement and missile defense, the U.S. infuriated Moscow.
The Obama administration assumed office faced with a daunting array of global challenges and problems exceeding the ability of the United States to handle them on its own. The President instinctively recognized that he would need all the support he could get on tough questions like Afghanistan, Iran’s drive towards nuclear weapons, or curbing global climate change. He would need a strong, united Europe as a partner and he have to convince Russia not to play the role of ‘spoiler.’ These goals formed the intellectual framework for much of Obama’s policy towards Europe and Russia.
The implementation of the administration’s policy has shown several shortcomings. The Obama administration made the mistake of failing to immediately pair its ‘reset’ policy toward Russia with a policy of ‘reassurance’ towards Central and Eastern Europe. A series of slights and poor diplomatic work by the administration further offended the countries of the region, even prior to the botched rollout of the new missile defense architecture. However, the administration might be forgiven for a cool attitude toward the region. Poland’s paranoia makes it a sometimes-difficult ally and the Czech Republic’s poor handling of its Presidency of the European Union hardly inspired confidence in the region’s leadership. Additionally, President Vaclav Klaus’ stalling tactics on the Lisbon Treaty reflect poorly on the Czech Republic at a time when Washington would like to see Europe emerge as a more capable global partner. After a series of mutual gaffes and missteps, America’s relations with Central and Eastern Europe needed their own ‘reset button.’ Vice President Biden’s long-standing support for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe made him the perfect person to visit the region to soothe hurt feelings, reassure nervous allies, and propose a constructive way forward.
Vice President Biden’s important speech in Bucharest celebrated the progress the region has made since it threw off the shackles of Communism twenty years ago. He praised the leaders who helped make the transformation possible and mentioned the strong backing of the United States for the region’s integration into NATO and the European Union. The Vice President called the region an inspiration for the world and urged it to help spread democracy further afield into parts of the former Soviet Union that are still struggling to transform into free societies.
It remains to be seen if the Obama administration will partner with the region in helping usher in this transformation, or if the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will have to further spread democracy on its own. A sad legacy of the Bush administration is that its cynical use of democracy promotion to retroactively justify the Iraq war tarnished the concept of democracy as a goal of American foreign policy. The Obama administration’s understandable pursuit of tangible results in its foreign policy has led to less vocal advocacy of democracy promotion and human rights, in particular with large countries such as China and Russia. Some leaders in Central and Eastern Europe fear that the more pragmatic orientation of the Obama administration could threaten the region’s important political and economic gains and slow momentum for reform in the Ukraine and Georgia, particularly in light of the global economic crisis. Vice President Biden’s call for the countries of the region to actively encourage their neighbors to pursue democratic reforms is correct. But he would have done better to announce that the United States would be their partner in that effort and articulate steps Washington could take with governments in the region to accelerate reforms in Europe’s East. This November, Secretary Clinton will be in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the spread of democracy across the former Warsaw Pact nations and parts of the former Soviet Union. She can use the symbolic anniversary of freedom’s triumph and the power of steadfast American leadership to articulate a bold agenda for partnership with the region to help complete the vision of a ‘united Europe, whole and free.’
The Obama administration’s new missile defense architecture could also serve as another important example of America working with the region on issues of common interest, despite the initial hurt feelings of the new policy. On his visit, the Vice President secured the agreement of Poland and the Czech Republic to participate in the new missile defense system, and a team of senior officials will visit the region next month to discuss implementation. Poland will also receive the Patriot missiles it was promised by the previous administration, which Poland views as an important sign of American commitment to the region’s security. While many details still need to be worked out, it appears that Russia’s initial triumphalism over the administration’s missile defense plans may have been a bit premature. The Obama administration will likely still partner with key Central and Eastern European countries on missile defense.
The Obama administration’s policy toward Central and Eastern Europe is recovering from some early missteps. Thanks to the laudable efforts of Vice President Biden, the administration has recovered quite well from its early mistakes to soothe hurt feelings and reassure wary allies who have been betrayed too many times throughout history. The administration can follow up on the success of Biden’s latest visit by ensuring that the views of Central and Eastern Europe are heard and respected as the NATO Alliance puts together a new Strategic Concept.
Twenty years after the transformation of the Continent, Central and Eastern Europe must learn how to handle the fruits of their own success. The countries of the region must recognize that if they feel less loved by Washington, it is in large part because their successful transformation into thriving democracies has made them into normal members of the European Union and NATO, not special projects requiring nurturing and attention. As the Obama administration searches for a major foreign policy success, it will be forced to prioritize its activities and work with strong, capable partners. As they were during Bush administration, Central and Eastern Europe will remain valued partners and allies for the United States on a whole range of international issues. However, the United States now hopes to partner with Central and Eastern Europe as important and fully integrated members of a strong, united European Union and a robust Atlantic Alliance.
Author is Assistant Director of Program on International Security at Atlantic Council.