Vice President Biden is visiting Central Europe this week as part of the administration’s damage control efforts in the wake of the botched roll-out of its missile defense decisions. The White House’s objective extends beyond missile defense however; Biden’s task is to reassure allies and demonstrate commitment to a region that is second-guessing the American support it has long counted on.
Poland and the Czech Republic are obvious stops given these nations were to host critical components of the previous missile defense plans. But why is Romania on Biden’s itinerary? In fact, Bucharest, Romania’s capital, is the venue for Biden’s major speech on the trip.
To most Americans, Bucharest is not the obvious choice. It is the land devastated during the Cold War by Nicolae Ceausescu and his secret police. It is among the newest – and poorest – members of NATO and the European Union. Furthermore, Romania is in the midst of political turmoil as the parliament is unable to approve a new prime minister while the nation faces presidential elections next month.
While stops in Warsaw and Prague are intended to rebuild trust, the visit to Romania provides a platform to underscore the broader goal of the trip by looking past missile defense and speaking to the entire region. The Bucharest stop also underscores the importance of Romania as a strategic partner for the United States. Romania under President Basescu is perhaps the most pro-American member of NATO. Yet there have been no top-level meetings since President Obama came to office.
The administration is increasingly recognizing that the relationship the United States has enjoyed with post-communist Romania is special. Romania has been a stalwart ally. Its leadership is not pro-Republican or pro-Democrat; it is pro-American. Romania has demonstrated that it is there when America needs it most. Romania did not hesitate to deploy large numbers of combat forces to Iraq and Afghanistan. And Bucharest allowed its soldiers to fight. Despite domestic political tensions and the economic crisis, Romania is planning to increase its forces in Afghanistan. Romania has also maintained close intelligence cooperation in support of U.S. global efforts.
With Basescu’s leadership, Romania signed base access agreements permitting U.S. forces to train and deploy through Romanian facilities if ever needed to respond to a crisis further east or south. And while Biden may not be ready to accept the offer, he will hear a Romanian leadership anxious to play its role in helping to defend all of Europe from the Iranian missile threat by hosting SA-3 missiles. Romania may be an ideal location for elements of the new system which requires a stronger presence in southeast Europe.
Romania has become a strategic actor with Washington, as Basescu has provided the “vision thing” by pressing the importance of Europe’s East, the Black Sea region and the “Strategic South.” His voice has pushed Washington to remember that there is much unfinished business in Europe, including integrating Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia and Georgia into Europe. Romania is also providing thought leadership as the Alliance drafts a new Strategic Concept.
In meetings with senior Americans, Basescu often unfolds a map demonstrating the Black Sea as a strategic crossroads for opportunities and challenges. Because he caught Washington’s attention, the United States is increasingly focusing on the Black Sea region as a pivotal European region linking Europe to the East. Bucharest’s vision rightly ensures that Romania and Bulgaria would not remain the eastern borders of Europe. Biden’s speech in Bucharest provides the right opportunity to embrace this good advice as Obama administration policy.
Romania – and Basescu in particular – has been a consistent voice preaching and practicing the importance of ensuring European energy security by mitigating Europe’s dependency on Russia. Despite pressure from Moscow, Bucharest has supported alternative energy routes, most notably the Southern Corridor’s Nabucco pipeline, and advocated alternative energy sources such as liquefied natural gas. Bucharest recently underscored its energy leadership role by hosting the Atlantic Council’s inaugural annual Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum.
Furthermore, with a market of 21 million consumers, Romania offers the potential for an important market for American goods. It is an entrée for American investment into the European Union, such as Ford’s Craiova automobile factory. Basescu’s anti-corruption efforts have been critical to strengthening the rule of law and providing the basis for weathering current economic difficulties.
Reminiscent of Biden’s July visits to Ukraine and Georgia to assuage concerns regarding the Russia reset policy, Biden is again embarking again for Europe to assuage concerns. He will succeed is calming the waters on missile defense if he uses the trip to spell out the administration’s policy for the region. If Biden embraces Basescu’s vision for completing the unfinished business in Europe’s East, the United States can count on Romania being among our key partners in achieving that vision.
Damon Wilson is Vice President and Director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council; formerly Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council.