In the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, “Europe whole, free and at peace” was not just a vision; it was a successful policy leading to the consolidation of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and the integration of the region into Europe’s great institutions. This outcome was neither easy nor obvious.
The same bipartisan leadership demonstrated over the past 20 years is required today to “complete Europe” – that is, to finish the unfinished business of integrating the western Balkans and Eastern Europe into the European mainstream, including ultimately the European Union and NATO.
However, on this anniversary of the beginning of the end of a dividing line in Europe, we are missing the vision and the policy to extend his great success story to the south and east.
Europe is moving forward with the goal of assisting nations in the Balkans to advance the reforms necessary to find a home in Europe and to turn their backs – like much of the rest of Europe – on a bloody history of ethnic violence. To their credit, European leaders have embraced the vision that the region does indeed belong in Europe, without denying how far societies in the region have to travel.
Slovenia was the first to blaze the path. Croatia, Albania, Macedonia and now Montenegro are moving at varying speeds in the right direction. Serbia’s population is poised to make the right strategic choice. Bosnia’s leaders run the risk of letting their country be left behind. While Bosnia is particularly challenging, there is a European consensus, albeit fragile, that if a nation in the region gets its act together, there can be a place for it within Europe. The vision exists even if the strategy is on a slow track.
Yet this consensus breaks down looking East.
In fact, since Russia and Georgia went to war in August 2008, it has become conventional wisdom that too much Western outreach to Georgia and Ukraine is understandably provocative toward Russia. Russia has after all declared its “privileged interests” in the region.
Imagine if Western leaders had accepted that argument regarding the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These nations, now perceived as obvious members of the European Union and NATO, might have been forced to follow a different path.
Then what’s different now with Ukraine and Georgia?
Certainly, Georgia and Ukraine are harder cases. The transitions to which these nations aspire are more profound. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in many respects rejoined the European tradition of much of their history, including building on pre-war democratic traditions and free markets. Even the Baltic states achieved their transitions building on the legacy of their independence in the 1920s and 1930s.
While Georgia and Ukraine have both had periods of national consciousness and independence, they have not benefited from historical traditions rooted in the mainstream of European political and economic development. Furthermore, Ukraine has lacked decisive, effective leadership during its transition, exacerbated by divisions within the Ukrainian public about where the country should be headed. Georgia, which enjoys a population united behind a vision of Georgia as part of the West, has paid a high price for perhaps too decisive leadership.
And then there is Russia. The Russia that was irritated by the Baltic states, or even Poland, joining NATO, is not the Russia of today. Cooperation with the West used to be a source of domestic strength for post-communist Russian leaders. Unfortunately, in recent years, the inverse has become true. Confrontation with the West has become a powerful source of political strength for Russian leaders at home as Russia has moved away from European democratic values.
The Russia of today is exerting its privileged interests – diplomatic niceties for a sphere of influence – in the region, is asserting its right to defend Russians wherever they may live, and is working to rollback democratic progress in Georgia and Ukraine seen as a challenge to the Moscow model.
Georgia and Ukraine clearly have more to transform than their neighbors to the west did during their transitions. And yet, Georgia and Ukraine are seeking to achieve the success of these neighbors while dealing with Russian efforts to undermine their progress.
The West is not on the sidelines. The European Union, with Swedish and Polish leadership, has launched the Eastern Partnership to strengthen ties with neighbors who were once part of the Soviet Union. While details of the partnership remain to be defined, it offers the prospect of a credible mechanism to help these societies pursue the transformation required to draw closer to the West, much as NATO’s Partnership for Peace did in the 1990s. The EU’s soft power approach could prove ingenious. Judging by Russia’s critical reaction to the EU initiative, Moscow believes the Eastern Partnership will be more effective than many of the detractors who fear it is too vague.
NATO, however, seems like a deer caught in headlights. Yes, the Alliance did agree at the Bucharest summit that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO. And in the absence of agreement on a Membership Action Plan for either, Allies launched a NATO-Georgia Commission to parallel the NATO-Ukraine Commission as an alternative means to help these nations reform and prepare for eventual membership. Yet, most NATO allies believe it taboo to put too much meat on the bones of these cooperation efforts. In fact, Moscow is succeeding in imposing a de facto arms embargo on Georgia, and to a lesser extent Ukraine, by dissuading Western nations from maintaining normal military-tomilitary cooperation with these nations.
Ultimately, completing Europe is not about NATO and EU enlargement. Rather, it is about assisting societies in Europe’s East so that they succeed in their efforts to embrace the values and practices of the European mainstream – democracy, free markets, open media, individual liberties, rule of law, etc. As these societies transform, discussion of and then decisions about membership in the EU and NATO should follow.
Clearly, the burden is on the leaders and populations of Georgia and Ukraine to make the difficult choices that their Central and Eastern European neighbors have taken over the past 20 years. But the West has an equally important role to articulate and back a vision that makes clear that if societies transform, they will find a home in a Europe whole, free and at peace.
Russia also deserves a place within this vision. As a diminishing commodity in an ever-globalizing world, the West should welcome joining forces with Russia to tackle global challenges. The Obama administration is seeking such cooperation with its pragmatic “reset” policy. And yet realism about (an authoritarian) Russia today should neither create shortcuts for Russia to join our community of values nor deny opportunities to support transition and pluralism within Russia. Russia’s citizens need to know that if their society becomes more democratic and embraces rule of law, a more profound partnership with Europe and North America will follow.
In the meantime, only with a clear vision is there a realistic prospect that tough decisions on reform will produce the desired results on integration. NATO and the EU have long served as engines of reform for nations aspiring to join their ranks. That engine only runs, however, when fueled by vision.
“Europe whole, free and at peace” remains a valid vision and policy. It’s time for a new generation of leaders in Europe and North America to apply this strategy and extend this opportunity unequivocally to the western Balkans and Europe’s East.
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.