he special relationships that once bound the United States to the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe are all but gone. From Warsaw to Sofia, governments in the region seem more interested in improving ties with Berlin or even Moscow than in tending links with Washington—or, for that matter, Brussels. The geopolitical story of the region today thus concerns not only a crisis of Atlanticism (in essence, the idea that culturally Western liberal democracies have enough in common to work together for mutual benefit), but European integration as well. There is today a new “Middle Zone” forming in Central Europe composed of states varyingly integrated into both Atlantic and pan-European institutions that find themselves wedged between a German-led fiscal core to the west and a Russian-dominated purgatory of corrupt and compromised states to the east. This is not what either Americans or Europeans intended when Central Europe entered NATO and the European Union after the Cold War.
Atlanticism’s role is far from finished in the region. Properly revived, it can guard against the return of geopolitics, it can fight the institutional erosion that is increasingly found in the region’s still-young democracies, and it can thus cement the full array of Central Europe’s hard-won gains of the past two and a half decades. Ironic as it may seem, a revived Atlanticism can also re-forge the shield that allowed European integration to advance in the first place. But that revival will require what robust Atlanticism has always required: American leadership. Needless to say, that quality has seen its ups and downs over the years, but it has always survived, largely because it is necessary. The questions we have to answer today and tomorrow, then, are “Who does or does not think Atlanticism is necessary, and why?”
These questions are not new. Timothy Garton Ash asked during the 2002 “Big Bang” NATO Enlargement Summit in Prague whether the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, “having just received invitations to join the Alliance and so proud of their pro-American orientation”, would still be Atlanticist in ten years’ time. Or would they “succumb to the wave of radical chic anti-American Euro-Gaullist sentiments on the rise in the western half of the continent?”1
One answer, since enshrined as a sort of manifesto of Atlanticism in Central Europe, came in the form of an essay by the late Ronald Asmus, a former RAND analyst and architect of NATO enlargement as a Clinton Administration official, and Alexandr (“Sasha”) Vondra, a Czech dissident turned strategist who later became Minister of Defense.2 Asmus and Vondra said that, yes, Central Europe would remain Atlanticist. The reasons, they argued, were rooted in the complex geography and history of the mosaic of nation-states that inhabit the thousands of miles of land between the Baltic and Black Seas. Far from being a passing whim of free marketeers obsessed with the Reagan-Thatcher show, and more than a mere opportunistic grasp at NATO membership, the new westward strategic orientation of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia constituted the culmination of one of history’s great cycles. It represented, they argued, the permanent removal of the West’s congenital geopolitical flaw: the zone of vulnerability, backwardness and repression in Europe’s Eastern Approaches that had built chaos into the heart of the Western order, and that had brought America into three of Europe’s wars in less than two generations.
Banishing the problem of the Eastern Approaches required the United States and its European allies to achieve not just a strategic and economic but a civilizational shift—a change in the institutional, strategic and human orientation in the lands that the Communists had called, to Milan Kundera’s consternation, “Eastern” Europe. With many West European states reluctant about this eastward shift, it fell to the United States to organize it. In short, it called for a version of Atlanticism pushed quite far from the Atlantic Ocean. This, argued Asmus and Vondra, was as much a strategic imperative for the United States and prerequisite for achieving effective European integration as it was a boon for NATO’s new beneficiaries. Solving Central Europe’s problems, in other words, was tantamount to cleaning up the devil’s playground that had despoiled the West’s 20th century. Atlanticism would endure not just because it was useful and popular, but because it was needed.
A decade has now passed since Ash posed his question, and to all appearances he has been proven correct. Atlanticism in Central Europe appears to be in a state of advanced rot. Its leaders far more often look to Brussels than to Washington, but with a twist. The countries of the region are becoming more continentalist in their strategic orientation—less like the countries in Europe’s Atlantic rim, Britain and Scandinavia, and more like the countries of its core, Germany and Austria. They are becoming less Central Europe and more Mitteleuropa. They have few emotional attachments to America and many weary experiences of arguing with U.S. government bureaucrats high and low.3 The real problem, however, runs deeper: Atlanticism has no apparent role. There is no imminent military threat to thwart, no new overseas military operation in prospect requiring allied solidarity, no major security or democracy project in the region on which to fix collective attention. No one needs it. It’s as simple as that.
Except, of course, that it isn’t that simple. We don’t shut down the fire station because a few days go by without a fire to extinguish. Just so, we must not abandon Atlanticism just because there is no searing crisis of the moment. The point of the post-Cold War effort, recall, was to solve for good the recurrent geopolitical problems that had wrecked the European 20th century and had caused a good deal of trouble on the American side of the Atlantic as well. That meant preventing both the return of geopolitics from without and of nationalism from within—both of them, because the two have a tendency to feed one another. And it is precisely this dual strategic goal that is now at risk, thanks to five emerging trends: the crisis of European integration; the reemergence of Germany; flagging U.S. strategic interest in the region; the re-emergence of Central European nationalism; and the hardening of authoritarianism in the post-Soviet space. With the very foundations of the post-1989 European order melting away, what will happen when the next fire breaks out? That depends on how these five trends unfold in concert.
The Crisis of European Integration: It would be easy to conclude that Central European Atlanticism was, as Ash described it, an “infantile disorder” rooted in a passing moment of geopolitics and a generation of politicians who liked Hayek, Ronald Reagan and rock ’n’ roll. Further, one could reasonably conclude that in Atlanticism’s place the European Union has won out as an alternative pole of attraction. Most U.S. analysts believe that something like this has indeed happened, and it is a comforting view, even for Americans, since it means that Atlanticism’s passing, while regrettable, has been succeeded by something positive that America has encouraged for decades: a European order marked by peaceful integration, a settling of the historic problems of the European balance of power, the success of democracy and economic liberalism, and the end or at least the quieting of geopolitics in the east. The problem is that Ash was wrong: A new European map is coming into view that is centered on neither NATO nor the European Union.
Like most Western intellectuals at the time, Ash believed in 2002 that the countries of Central Europe were entering into an increasingly integrated Europe characterized by a vibrant internal market, deepening political collaboration and growing international economic and even geopolitical clout. Europe would assimilate its new members while holding out the prospect of reform and enlargement to states further east. Alas, that scenario failed to materialize. The question today is not whether the European Union will emerge as a global power but whether it will continue in any meaningful form at all.
Above all, the eurozone sovereign debt and banking crises revealed profound structural flaws in the economic heart of the project, centered on the decoupling of a unified monetary policy and national-level fiscal policies. The dangerous imbalances that the crisis revealed between the Union’s northern and southern economies have generated recurring economic instability. Politically, neither the European Union’s supranational mechanisms nor the frenzied efforts at intergovernmental crisis management among the member states has produced a solution that could give continued substance to the “ever closer union” paradigm.
Significantly, many of the elements of integration that were supposed to have cemented the new member states to a European future are now up in the air. The structural funds that flowed so generously in the early days after EU accessions will slow to a trickle after the 2014–20 budget cycle. The labor and service market liberalizations that were supposed to draw large numbers of Central Europeans westward for work were interrupted by the 2008 crisis; many of the millions of Central Europeans who went to work in London, Dublin and Stockholm have returned home. The federalist structures that were supposed to make Central European governments equal stakeholders in the EU political consensus are at best stalled in development; most likely, they will soon be replaced with new arrangements, concentrating economic decision-making in the hands of a German-led, mainly Western fiscal core.
This is not to say that Europe as a general concept has failed to grow larger on the mental maps of Poles, Slovaks and Lithuanians, or that the European Union as a specific set of institutions does not still enjoy great popularity in these countries. But Europe as an assimilating machine has failed to develop the anticipated integrationist torque in Central Europe. The European Union now seems unlikely to regain the intensity in human, political and strategic terms that it held in the period following enlargement. In retrospect, the past few years may eventually be seen as the peak of EU influence in the region.
The Re-emergence of Germany: If Atlanticism is no longer the lodestar of Central European foreign policies, and if the crisis-prone European Union isn’t either, then what is? The default answer is beginning to emerge: Germany, the world’s second-largest exporting nation with an industrial plant that exceeds the consumptive capacity of its own population, is the central economic fact of life on the European continent. But it is a fact that has been tempered dramatically by the EU context in which Germany sits.
Unlike other large exporters (notably China), Germany lacks the affordable indigenous labor needed to maximize its national economic potential. It also makes more than its domestic market can absorb. By surrounding this industrial giant with a free-trade area and a common currency, the EU planners unwittingly equipped a now-united Germany with exactly what it needs most to succeed in the emerging multipolar era: cheap labor and captive consumers.
From a German perspective, therefore, there are two European “peripheries”: those eurozone states nearby that buy German products, and the euroless ones that make German products as production platforms. Central Europe is in the latter category. With low labor costs and easy access through Mitteleuropa’s transport grid, the region has become a kind of giant “iron lung” for the German economy. In smaller countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, entire industries are offshoots of German companies. These symbiotic economic ties are changing the political relationship between Berlin and the capitals of Central Europe. Far from balancing German influence in Europe, they increasingly seem to bolster it.
Leading the way is Poland, whose trade relationship with Germany now exceeds that with Russia. When Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in November 2011 that Germany was “Europe’s indispensible nation” that “dared not fail to lead”, he gave voice to both an emerging geopolitical reality and a quiet revolution that is underway in European diplomacy. The vision of a supranational Europe, with all its players represented proportionally and the smaller nations checking the ambitions of the strong, died during the European debt crisis. In its place, Europe’s lines of pragmatic decision-making run not through Brussels, but Berlin.
Flagging U.S. Interest in Europe: Contemporary Central European foreign policies are partly the result of relative American disengagement from the region. Obama Administration officials deny any such thing, but the trend has been underway for years, spanning virtually all realms—military, economic and cultural. The change is partly structural and inevitable: In the early 21st century, the United States simply does not have as pressing or as immediate a set of interests in Central Europe as it had in the 1990s. As outlined in the Department of Defense’s 2012 Strategic Guidance and the Department of State’s so-called pivot to Asia, the United States is rebalancing strategic attention to the Pacific, a process that is likely to accelerate in coming years.
But even before the pivot had entered the policy lexicon, many Central European capitals had already begun to sense an American retrenchment from Europe. Though not well received in Washington at the time, a 2009 open letter signed by regional leaders articulated the concern that “our region is one part of the world that Americans have largely stopped worrying about.”4 The subsequent cancellation of U.S. third-site missile defense plans inaugurated a series of public bilateral disputes that, while relatively minor individually, did substantial damage to what was left of an active Atlanticist impulse in the region’s senior policymaking elite.
Since then, the Obama Administration has taken several steps—Baltic military exercises, EPAA (European Phased Adaptive Approach) architecture for Poland and Romania, NATO contingency planning—to counterbalance perceptions of retrenchment. The transience of these arrangements, however, was underscored by the announcement, just three months into the Administration’s second term, that it would cancel the fourth phase of EPAA. Though there are still plans to build the program, the fourth-phase cancellation, along with the subsequent announcement of a paltry contribution to NATO’s Steadfast Jazz exercises in the Baltic, underscored what many Central Europeans have long sensed: The U.S. presence in the region lacks any long-term strategic rationale and hence staying power.
Stress Testing Central European Democracy: A decade after enlargement, the organizing assumption in the Euro-Atlantic policy community was that the spread of Western institutions into the former Communist lands of the east would go hand-in-hand with a permanent, albeit gradual, consolidation in the deeper fundaments of democratic standards, institutions and rule of law. To their credit, U.S. and European policymakers after the Cold War recognized the combination of both populist, ethno-centrist illiberalism and geopolitical vulnerability that has historically been the region’s Achilles’ Heel. It was then assumed that this mission was well on its way to completion and that the main challenge in the spread of Western institutions lay further east, into the lands of the post-Soviet space. Neither set of assumptions remains valid today.
On the surface, democracy in the Central European core is stronger in both institutional and human terms than ever before. Every country in the region holds regular, free and open elections; mainstream parties dominate the parliaments; political debate is vibrant; and media outlets are generally free. But beneath the surface, there are worrying signs. International attention has tended to gravitate to Hungary, where the government of Viktor Orbán appears to be orchestrating a deliberate consolidation of executive power. An objective analysis of the past two and a half years would show that early concerns of a “new Putinism” in Hungary were overstated, but Orbán’s public pronouncements about the inability of parliamentary democracy to cope with periods of international turbulence echo unmistakably the nation’s interwar authoritarian past. The government’s response to anti-Semitic and anti-Roma acts by the nation’s growing Far Right have been insufficient. The centralized constitutional structures that the Fidesz government has created could easily lend themselves to abuse, not only in the hands of the current government but by eventual successors on the Left.
Less well chronicled than Hungary has been the anemic state of democracy in many other parts of Central Europe, where the latest indices show signs of steady backsliding.5 Most worrying are the late EU entrants Romania and Bulgaria; entrenched corruption, cronyism and government interference in the judiciary and media have brought both countries into the range of “semi-consolidated” democracies. But even the Central European core is not immune. Recent Czech elections were marred by a campaign of explicit xenophobia, with the nation’s most senior political figures invoking the nation’s ethnic divides of the 1930s. The country has stumbled for years from one unstable coalition to the next, punctuated by interludes of technocratic governance.
To be fair, even the settled democracies of the West, including the United States, have been strained by the economic crisis. In Central Europe, democracy as an idea is not in danger; in most cases, the major arteries of political freedom at both the individual and governmental levels are open and functioning. But the stresses on these systems are clearly growing, from internal sources but also because of the weakening of external drivers of reform. Coming at a moment when the integrative influences of both the European Union and NATO are at their lowest ebbs since the Cold War, these tests, one can reasonably assume, will intensify, and illiberal temptions will grow more acute than the optimists of the 1990s assumed they could.
Russian Influence and the New Eastern Frontier: The role of Russia in regional politics has increased the pressure on Central European democracy. The vacuum created by the dual crisis of Atlanticism and European integration is being readily filled by corrupt politics and subversive Russian activities, which often work in tandem. To an extent largely unrecognized in Washington, Russian influence is gaining a commanding lead in the business, energy and intelligence realms across the region. In energy, Russian companies control all three Baltic gas companies, set gas prices regionally (in the case of Poland and the Baltic States, the price is punitively high), and are in the process of acquiring the tenders for nuclear reactors in the Czech Republic and Hungary. In finance, Kremlin-owned banks are tightening their grips on regional financial institutions, with Sberbank, Gazprombank and VTB controlling more than 20 percent of all bank assets in the region. The continued exodus of Western banks, burned by overexposure to regional balance sheets during the crisis, will further elevate the status of Russian state-owned financial institutions as lenders of last resort in every country except Poland and the Czech Republic.
Further east, in the countries of the post-Soviet space, the effort to extend Western democratic norms and strategic influence has stalled. In Belarus, the opening for reform that seemed to emerge in the aftermath of the 2010 election crackdown has given way to tightened authoritarian repression and control. In Ukraine, whatever faded prospect of reform remaining from the failed Orange Revolution of 2004 died with the consolidation of power after the 2012 presidential elections. In its place, Ukraine could eventually face two equally unsavory options: nationalism or Russian state capture. Whatever benefits the U.S.-Russia “reset” may have produced in strategic relations, it did not produce good results for democracy in the post-Soviet space. By appearing to prioritize gains in arms control over longstanding U.S. pressure for reform on the ground, the Obama Administration’s body language toward Moscow chilled the region’s already-embattled anti-authoritarian dissident communities.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program, with its emphasis on “more for more” in trade, aid and exchange, has also failed to incentivize reform. Given the diminishing financial and political support in Berlin and other West European capitals, it is doubtful the EaP will prove an effective template for Western engagement in the east. In strategic terms, the level of Russian influence in countries like Belarus and even Ukraine gives these countries at best “dual-use” foreign policies. The net effect of these changes has been to create a de facto reactivated geopolitical frontier along the European Union’s eastern border. Rather than a continued eastward march of democracy or even a gray zone where a contest for influence can still be waged, the reality is increasingly that of a space devoid of democratic influence and, more often than not, one of active westward conduits funneling corruption, dependency and subversion into the Central European core.
The New Middle Zone
n short, it isn’t just Atlanticism that is in crisis; it is the entire paradigm of post-Cold War Europe. The fact that Central European countries are less Atlanticist has not necessarily made them more Europeanist. On the new European map, economic power resides in the east-central core of the continent, in the nexus of overlapping geopolitical and economic interests between Germany and the states of the Baltic-to-Black Sea corridor. This configuration resembles the Mitteleuropa of Bismarck, stripped of its Prussian military overtones, more than it does the federative European vision of Monnet and Schuman, or the Atlanticist vision of Asmus and Vondra.
It is not yet clear how economic realities will translate into geopolitical terms. One possibility, implied in much of the current discourse about Europe, is that the rhythm of EU integration will reassert itself following a crisis-induced hiatus. Another is that Germany will eventually develop the political ambitions to match its economic heft and begin to take a more active role in ordering the European political space. Perhaps. But for now, with integration in abeyance and U.S. strategic attention moving away from Europe, the Central European region is likely to remain for the foreseeable future a “Middle Zone” in European politics, pulled both east and west but ending up in neither place.
This marks a major improvement over the harsh security dilemmas that prevailed for most of Central European history, but it does not redeem the vision that inspired U.S. and European leaders in their efforts over the past twenty years to build a Europe “whole, free and at peace.” The brilliance of that blueprint was that it sought to provide for both stability and freedom in Central Europe through an active, institutionalized American and European engagement in the region. In providing this mechanism, the 1989 post-Cold War architects sought something that had been accomplished neither by the 1919 postwar settlement, with its emphasis on national self-determination at the expense of strategic sustainability, nor by the 1946 settlement, with its emphasis on great power accord at the expense of regional independence: a sustainable peace in the “Lands Between.”
That peace held major strategic importance for the United States for reasons that go beyond the human appeal of the 1989 moment. As a peace-interested maritime power of global strategic reach, the United States has a vested interest in managing the handful of strategically crucial regions that have tended to drive conflict for so much of recorded history.6 Central/Eastern Europe is one of these “hingepoint” regions. By removing the fracture zone in Europe’s center and east, the United States effectively addressed, in its third attempt in the 20th century, what had been the main vortex of unpredictability and conflict within the Western order. While major war in this region is no longer likely, the region possesses the latent potential, through geographic placement, population density and industrial potential, to tip the scales of both European and Eurasian politics in the 21st century.
The combination of faltering Euro-Atlantic institutions, struggling democracy and resurgent Russian influence could lead to bad outcomes for U.S. strategic interests down the road. In the short term, the erosion of the U.S. position in regional security and energy could cost the United States a vital source of support and leverage in European politics, while the reopening of an eastern strategic frontier could generate low-intensity crises at just the moment when the United States needs to focus attention elsewhere. In the longer term, the growing predominance of Germany in the Central European region, and of Russia in the post-Soviet space, though largely economic in nature for now, could create conditions for a de facto Mackinderesque big-power domination of the Euro-Eurasian core—a hegemonic condition the United States has consistently opposed by various means since the end of the Spanish-American War.
he unraveling of the post-Cold War European settlement should be a source of concern for the United States. This is so even if that unraveling is still inchoate, does not appear especially dangerous, and seems to be less important than developments elsewhere. The United States and its Western allies remain close to resolving a significant structural geostrategic problem; it would be folly to give up the effort now.
The United States should therefore work with its European allies to devise a new strategy for strengthening the West’s strategic, economic and values-based presence in this region. In light of present budgetary constraints, this strategy will have to use creativity where it is short on cash. Here are six components of a potential strategy:
Return to America’s original strategic purpose: America’s long-term aim in Central Europe has always been the same: to ensure geopolitical pluralism in the space between Germany and Russia. Its interest has been to promote a grouping of states with independent foreign policies, non-volatile economies and stable, democratic governments in order to guard against the return of the destructive twins of nationalism and geopolitics.
Both America’s championship of NATO and EU enlargement and the attraction of Central Europe’s small and mid-sized states to these institutions were rooted in the recognition that they offered a preferable alternative to the previous Mitteleuropean or Eastern Bloc templates. Yet the Bush and Obama Administrations have unwittingly made this Euro-Atlantic alternative harder to achieve: George W. Bush by overvaluing Central Europe’s usefulness in extra-European conflicts, thus fueling subsequent disillusionment; and Barack Obama by undervaluing the region in favor of Russia, then playing catch-up afterward. Bush transactionalized the relationship. Obama trivialized it. Both made it about something other than Central Europe itself.
These policies weakened U.S. credibility and heightened the region’s desire for less mutable strategic options. A new strategy should start by returning to America’s original strategic thesis and making U.S. policy on Central Europe about Central Europe, not about the Middle East or Russia.
Invest in regional political groupings: An old truth in geopolitics is that Europe is most stable when the Baltic-to-Black Sea corridor is most unified. Hence, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was called a “European necessity”, and as late as the 1940s Nicholas John Spykman called for an East European, rather than a pan-European, federation to solve Europe’s geopolitical problems.
These grand arrangements have never worked, and they never will on their own. But a powerful and relatively disinterested outside power can help make them work, especially if the effort starts fairly small. There are several pragmatic groupings now proliferating from Finland to Romania: the Visegrad Four (V4), Nordic-Baltic and Black Sea Synergy groups among them. Washington should try to form linkages with them, and eventually between them. Creating a bridging mechanism for the Visegrad Four and Nordic-Baltic groups would bring together ten of Europe’s most security-conscious, pro-U.S. states.
The United States could further incentivize cooperation by: dispersing military aid in block form, rather than in individual allotments; designating a senior U.S. representative to V4 and Nordic-8 ministerials; rearranging the State Department’s Central Europe office (it does not make sense to group Switzerland and Liechtenstein with Romania); and creating a working level V4/Nordic-Baltic portfolio at the Pentagon (none now exists). The point is not to build up alternatives to the European Union and NATO but to empower instruments embodying Euro-Atlantic ideals at a moment when the wider institutions are not functioning particularly well.
Strengthen the U.S. technological and commercial presence: U.S. engagement could also take material form. Across the region, opportunities abound for cooperation in strategic industries like energy and defense. This is especially true in Poland, which is in the early stages of a decade-long defense modernization program and a shale gas revolution. Washington should develop a comprehensive regional commercial strategy focused on incentivizing industrial cooperation and technology transfers in strategic industries. Doing so would bring jobs to the region as well as to U.S. industry, offer a long-overdue good-news story for Atlanticism, counter Russian inroads, and create an opportunity for a “backdoor”, private-sector form of strategic reassurance that benefits the United States and the region without necessarily complicating relations with Russia.
Conduct an intra-European “pivot”: Encouraging a more pervasive U.S. technological and commercial presence should go hand-in-hand with a broader rethinking of America’s defense posture in Europe. A major drawdown is already underway and is likely to accelerate in coming years as the United States seeks to reduce its force presence in Europe. If this change is going to occur anyway, it ought to be strategic in conception. Low budgets can incentivize strategic creativity if the right kind of leadership is at hand.
In Europe’s case, that kind of well-led creativity is long overdue. The current U.S. military footprint is a structural and geographic anachronism. There is no strategic rationale for the United States to retain large, expensive bases in Germany or Italy twenty years after the end of the Cold War. Moving the U.S. military footprint in Europe eastward makes both strategic and economic sense. A lightened U.S. presence shifted to Poland, Romania or Bulgaria would strengthen conventional deterrence along NATO’s border states and place American forces closer to critical regions while saving a potentially significant amount of taxpayer dollars. The new U.S. air detachment in Lask, Poland and the small presence in Constanta, Romania only hint at the larger potential of an intra-European pivot in U.S. defense resources. Toward that end, the Department of Defense should conduct a comprehensive assessment of the costs and benefits of shifting a major portion of the current infrastructure eastward over a ten- to twenty-year timeframe.
Keep pushing on democracy, but regain credibility first: As it strengthens the infrastructure of its power in Central Europe, the United States should also hone the attractiveness of Western democratic norms. Nearby continental powers like Russia will always have an advantage in that they are a very close, very visible presence in the neighborhood; for the United States, strategic influence, at least in Western cultural domains if not necessarily elsewhere, begins with the attractiveness of a political idea: a limited but effective constitutional and democratic state. As 19th-century Britain found, moral suasion and strategic fidelity are intimately linked. A U.S. approach that combines seemingly random criticism of democratic performance with the impression of strategic fickleness does not work.
Only by demonstrating staying power can Washington expect to be heard when it criticizes others on democracy. The credibility of American staying power has been depleted, and it now needs to be replenished. President Obama should travel to Warsaw in 2014 (perhaps as a layover during his trip to the Winter Olympics in Sochi) to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1989 democratic revolutions, which began in Poland. Similarly, the Administration should look for an opportunity in the second term to reconvene the group of Central European leaders that President Obama met for dinner on the eve of the Prague nuclear summit as an annual forum for discussing regional concerns. Until the United States demonstrates that it is paying serious attention to the region, the region will not pay serious attention to our complaints.
Develop a “long game” for winning influence in the post-Soviet space: Bad as things are in Belarus and Ukraine, they will only worsen if the drift in U.S. and European policy continues. Both sides of the Atlantic now need to develop a sober picture of reality and a joint plan for leveraging what few advantages are left to them. That joint plan should combine elements of both the pre-2008 enlargement agenda and the increasingly defunct Eastern Partnership program. Half measures have failed to achieve results; only a robust program has a chance to succeed.
That program should include: targeting the next generation of leaders (a more efficient use of limited political capital that creates a new vector of influence on current, undemocratic elites); synchronizing U.S.-EU messaging on democracy and rule of law (speaking with one voice has proven effective in Belarus); coordinating U.S.-EU public diplomacy outreach to deepen the penetration of Western electronic media and expand the use of people-to-people exchanges among journalists, civil servants, scholars, students and mid-level officials; and incentivizing national governments to allow Western businesses to thrive (commercial linkages exist, but taxes, regulations and corruption are blocking opportunities to modernize regional economies).
Across all of these policy areas, the goal should be to restore balance to U.S. strategy in Central Europe. That balanced policy should focus on preventing the region from bouncing between Russia and Germany in an awkward oscillation and becoming a renewed Middle Zone. It should not focus exclusively on putting out short-term fires and, when those fires are out, going back to ignoring long-term problems. The lack of balanced policy has eroded the westward orientation that U.S. and European leaders worked so hard for twenty years to build.
The dual crises of Atlanticism and pan-Europeanism ought to concentrate American minds. Even in an era of sequestration, budget ceilings and fiscal cliffs, the rationale for America’s original strategic investment in Central Europe remains valid. In fact, we should want to see that seed investment in the “hingepoint” region of the 20th century show a good strategic return at a moment when U.S. strategic attention must shift to the Asian “hingepoints” of the 21st. That is the bellwether of the next, necessary Atlanticism.
1Speech at the “NATO Transformation” conference organized by the Aspen Institute and the Prague NATO Summit Host Committee, Prague, November 20, 2002.
2Asmus and Vondra, “The Origins of Atlanticism in Central and Eastern Europe”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs (July 2005).
3See Charles Gati, “Faded Romance: How Mitteleuropa Fell Out of Love with America”, The American Interest (November/December 2008).
4“An Open Letter to the Obama Administration from Central and Eastern Europe”, Gazeta Wyborcza, July 16, 2009.
5See Nations in Transit 2012: Democratization from Central Europe to Eurasia, Freedom House, June 6, 2012; Adrian Basora, “Has Democracy Met the Stress Test in Post-Communist Europe?” Foreign Policy Research Institute (September 2012).
6See A. Wess Mitchell and Jakub Grygiel, “The Vulnerability of Peripheries”, The American Interest (March/April 2011).