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Letter To Obama: Five Years Later

“Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, Central and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy.”


That was the opening statement of the policy paper authorized by Pavol Demeš, István Gyarmati, Ivan Krastev, Kadri Liik, Adam Rotfeld and myself in July 2009. We had met under the guidance of Ron Asmus at the premises of the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in Brussels with the intention of warning the newly elected Obama administration that it should not take Central and Eastern Europe for granted anymore. A few days later, the almost identical text was signed as the famous “Open Letter to the Obama Administration from Central and Eastern Europe” by Václav Havel, Lech Wałȩsa and other leading figures from the region.

The year 2008 was a turning point. Until 2008, the West under U.S. leadership was in an offensive posture, setting the agenda and delivering results— from liberal democracy and free market economy promotions to institutional enlargements of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU). Since 2008, the West has taken a rather defensive and reactive posture. It started in spring 2008 at the NATO Bucharest Summit, which rejected the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership. In summer 2008, Putin´s Russia had penetrated a vacuum, promptly invaded Georgia and taken away a quarter of its territory. The emerging economic crisis in the West and a deadlock over the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty after the Irish referendum effectively caused the major Western powers to simply stand by when Russia—in the name of defending a sphere of influence on its borders—violated the core principles of the Helsinki Final Act. Then, in early 2009, the Obama administration entered the world scene with a policy of reset toward Russia.

Against this background—and “as the friends and allies of the United States”—we had drafted our paper and our letter. Our arguments were focused on two challenges. First, while U.S. policymakers may have an impression that the process of anchoring Central and Eastern European countries in the West is a mission accomplished, the reality exposed by a deeper scrutiny is uneasy at best. We warned that the United States might lose support in the region if NATO performs weakly. Uncertainty about its common defense commitments may undermine the pro-Atlantic orientation of Central European elites. Secondly, we pointed to the assertive policy of Russia under Putin’s regime: “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods,” as argued in the open letter to Obama.

Reactions to our letter in 2009 reached a point of hysteria in both Brussels and Washington. For example, the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament labeled the signatories “confrontational neo-cons” who are misled by “Russia—threat obsession.” In Washington, I had a chance to meet Michael McFaul, adviser to President Obama and a principal architect of the reset policy. He went ballistic in his White House office, accusing us of “Russophobia.” Generally speaking, our arguments did not find fertile grounds. In September 2009, President Obama called Warsaw and Prague and informed their leaders about a change in the U.S. missile defense plans. The Czechs had totally lost their place in the system, while the Poles were left with no assurance on financing the new one. The policy of reset and a general belief in soft power approach prevailed.

Five years have passed since 2009. One can easily reach a conclusion that the reset policy was a failure. Even McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia from December 2011 to February 2014, admitted it in his letter to the GMF’s Brussels Forum in March this year. Russia annexed Crimea, using the same rhetoric it had used about Georgia and defending a sphere of influence on its borders. As a consequence Ukraine is in a de facto state of war with Russia. The art of Russian propaganda has reached Goebbelsian proportions—and celebrates a successful road show in many European capitals. The Russian espionage and intelligence services are active in the West as never before, leaking private phone conversations between U.S. and European politicians as well as among Europeans themselves almost weekly. The goal is clear—to cause more and more disagreements within the West. “Divide-andempire,” this is the Russian response to the West’s helping hand and reset.

The past should be neither reset nor forgotten. Rather, it should serve as a lesson for knowing more about the present and the future. I was struck earlier this year during the Crimea crisis by how President Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany emotionally characterized Vladimir Putin as a man of the 19th century. Those who know history remember how President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Joseph Stalin a man of the 19th century in the aftermath of Yalta in 1945. Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s changed perception came too late. He had not listened carefully enough to Averell Harriman when it would have made a difference. Eastern Europe was almost entirely lost.

Rereading the 2009 open letter five years after, I would not change a word of it. All six of its recommendations remain unaccomplished. All our arguments remain valid. Time has proven that we were right. Even more, some of our negative prophecies have come true. The 2014 European Parliament elections have confirmed the risk of growing nationalism in Europe, and some statements from the new generation of politicians who incline to realpolitik in Prague, Bratislava, Budapest or even Warsaw have shown that even in those parts of Europe, a pro-Atlantic stand should not be taken for granted.

So what to add. A warning: West, wake up, please! This is the last call. Otherwise the Yalta of 2014 will be remembered from Warsaw to Kiev as intensely as is the Yalta of 1945.

By Alexandr Vondra


Alexandr Vondra is Director of the Prague Centre for Transatlantic Relations at the CEVRO Institute and a CEPA Advisory Council Member. Previously, he served as Czech Minister of Defense.


NOTE: Reprinted with permission from CEPA. This article first appeared in the July 10, 2014 issue of the CED (Central Europe Digest). Central Europe Digest is a publication of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a Washington, DC-based research institute devoted to the study of Central and Eastern Europe. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CEPA.

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