Back in 2003, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously noted that while “Old Europe” (particularly France and Germany) was hard to work with, America could count on “New Europe.” Fast forward to 2009 and we may have reversed polarity.
A piece in the current Economist notes that “After two decades of sometimes fervent Atlanticism in the ex-communist world, disillusionment (some would call it realism) is growing.”
At its height the bond between eastern Europe and America was based, like the best marriages, on a mixture of emotion and mutual support. The romance dates from the cold war: when western Europe was sometimes squishy in dealing with the Soviet empire, America was robust. When the Iron Curtain fell, ex-dissidents and retired cold warriors found they had plenty in common. America pushed for the expansion of NATO, guaranteeing the east Europeans’ security. In return, ex-communist countries loyally supported America, particularly in providing troops for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It cites the recently released Transatlantic Trends survey by the German Marshall Fund, which shows that things have changed radically.
The ascent of Barack Obama has boosted America’s image in most countries, but only modestly in places like Poland and Romania. Among policymakers in the east, the dismay is tangible. In July, 22 senior figures from the region, including Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, wrote a public letter bemoaning the decline in transatlantic ties.
One reason is that the Obama administration is rethinking a planned missile-defence system, which would have placed ten interceptor rockets in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic, in order to guard against Iranian missile attacks on America and much of Europe. That infuriated Russia, which saw the bases as a blatant push into its front yard. Changing the scheme—probably using seaborne interceptors—risks looking like a climb-down to suit Russian interests.
Poland is also worried that a promised battery of Patriot air-defence missiles, originally to protect the interceptors, may now be only a temporary loan of dummy rockets for training purposes—“just a sales exercise”, says an official in Warsaw, crossly. America says it never intended to station real rockets there permanently.
The administration also botched its participation in Poland’s 70th anniversary commemoration of the start of the second world war on September 1st. Other countries, including Russia and Germany, sent top people. America, initially, offered only a retired Clinton-era official. William Perry, who was a notable sceptic about NATO expansion. After squawks of dismay, Jim Jones, the national security adviser, went too. But Poles sensed a snub.
We shall see how long the Obama-inspired uptick in relations between the United States and its traditional allies lasts. Aside from the strains in the “Special Relationship” constantly reported in the British press, there’s good reason to think that we’re in for a good run. After all, the Iraq War — the catalyst for the initial strain — is fast moving toward closure and U.S. pique over the meager Continental contribution to Afghanistan will be academic if the U.S., too, decides that war is no longer worth the cost.
The downturn with New Europe is understandable, too. Obama is almost certainly going to side with Russia over Poland on missile defense — not out of appeasement to Moscow but because Democrats have traditionally thought the project a boondoggle. Certainly Georgia can’t feel rewarded for its fealty to the United States, having grudgingly gone to war in Iraq only to see its ally stand by while its sovereign territory was invaded. And Russia is now making a naked power grab in Ukraine with nary a peep from Washington.
The eagerness of “New Europe” to side with the U.S. came from the combination of the cold shoulder they were receiving from their Western neighbors and the warm rhetoric from across the Atlantic. But it now seems obvious that the talk will not be backed with action at the cost of risking war with Russia, especially for those states in its “near abroad” that have not yet been admitted into the NATO club. That realization obviously and reasonably puts a damper on “New Europe’s” enthusiasm.
Relations with “Old Europe,” meanwhile, will return to what they have been for the postwar period: a mature engagement between peers that will ebb and flow as the situation warrants. Such a relationship can withstand sharp disagreements, angry words, and hurt feelings. Resentments and rifts will occasionally arise but they will be temporary. Our shared values and interests, however, are permanent.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.