October 8, 2008

Let's get a few things off our chests. The Germans are still goose-steppers who would warm up the panzers in an instant to engage in a fifth partition of Poland with their Red Army counterparts. The French are cheese-eating surrender monkeys who want to appease the big bad bear of the East. The Italians (or Hungarians, or Spaniards, or Slovaks) will sell their mothers at the drop of a hat for a bit of Muscovite gold (or gas, as the case may be.)



Feel better, now?

There is a good deal of frustration within the trans-Atlantic community over its inability to formulate a single approach to Russia and her neighbors. Professor Motyl's column last week is the latest example. But what history has demonstrated in recent years is that attempts to "shame" a country into changing its foreign policy have almost always failed — and usually backfired.

After all, after then-Defense Minister Radek Sikorski of Poland lambasted the decision of Chancellor Angela Merkel in spring 2006 to continue with the Nord Stream pipeline project with Russia as being in the "tradition of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement", Berlin did not reverse its position. Indeed, as a column in Der Spiegel noted a year later, such statements, in part, led Germans (and by extension, some of the other members of the EU) to view the Poles not as victims but as “troublemakers and national egoists”— contrasting the poor state of relations between Berlin and Warsaw with the “harmonious relationship that existed between the two countries in the 1990s.”

There are plenty of resentments on all sides. Some of the states of “New Europe” feel that the established powers of Europe—not to mention their own neighbors—are often willing to sell principle in favor of good economic ties with Russia. The main powerhouses of the EU feel that the United States talks a good game about spreading democracy yet has let Europe—and specifically Germany, as the biggest donor state—take on the real burden of integrating central and eastern Europe into the trans-Atlantic community.

But is this how we want to head toward the December NATO summit? To have Americans and Poles lead the charge about “betraying democracy” and “appeasing” Russia and to have Germans and French retort with allegations about American-backed cowboys needlessly provoking Russia (and destabilizing Europe in the process?) Needless to say, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s comment that the U.S. might have to fight Russia over Georgia didn’t go over well in those circles that thought the specter of a clash between Moscow and Washington was relegated to the same dustbin of a century that saw an end to the cycle of war between Paris and Berlin.

I haven’t seen much that suggests that between the two options of “bringing in” Georgia and Ukraine into NATO “right away” and deciding that Tbilisi and Kiev are simply bridges too far for the Atlantic alliance there has been much thought about what might lie in between. It seems that the U.S. and its friends will repeat what they attempted in Bucharest and that Berlin and Paris will lead the resistance. Whether there will be any serious exploration of options that do not require the expansion of the alliance but at the same time could guarantee the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbors (and do so in a way that would not be confrontational vis-à-vis Moscow) doesn’t seem apparent. Not only do I not see any solutions on the horizon, I worry that there isn’t even a substantive trans-Atlantic discussion.

It is a difficult conversation to have, to be sure. And it may be more emotionally satisfying to lambaste and denounce those spineless Germans and others who won’t “step up to the plate.” But it isn’t going to produce a common trans-Atlantic approach that is sustainable and that can marshal the forces of the Twenty-Six in a way that is convincing and demonstrative.

Allow me to add the following postscript. From perusing the public sources, I don’t see much evidence that Washington has invested much thought to the “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (hat tip to my colleague Anthony Di Bella for introducing me to this concept). What happens if, despite all the pleading in the world, a number of NATO members remain dead set against further expansion at this time and in 2009 to boot? It may be that between the U.S. and the Franco-German positions there is no middle ground, no splitting of the difference. In that case, if American politicians truly believe their rhetoric, would they support negotiating agreements with Ukraine or Georgia similar to the alliances the U.S. has with the Republic of Korea or Japan? In the latter cases, Washington was prepared to extend security guarantees without involving other NATO members — and without expecting their support, either. But it doesn’t appear that the United States is prepared  to do this—so our politicians will find it much easier to browbeat the Germans, the French, the Italians and others for their unwillingness to expand the alliance.

John Vinocur wrote in Monday’s International Herald Tribune that a new trans-Atlantic policy is needed on Russia—but acknowledged that the hard line that both U.S. presidential candidates have taken on Moscow means that, come January 2009, there will only be “a few months for the enormous political task of working out a trans-Atlantic line.” Unless Russia simplifies matters by sending its forces into Finland or the Czech Republic, I don’t see this happening at all.

Let me close with a point made last month by now-Foreign Minister Sikorski: "I think the rules have changed in the sense that Europe, in which we could dispense security guarantees to countries without anticipating having to bear any cost for them, has just ended. The Russians have forced us to think in a more disciplined way about the future of NATO, the value of the guarantees, the practicalities that go with them." Are we thinking in a more disciplined way? These are the conversations we better start having much more of in the months ahead.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government.  


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