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Stormy Weather: Revisiting Atlanticism
In Central Europe

Ronald D. Asmus, who died in 2011, was one of the greatest friends of Central and Eastern Europe. The former American official, lately of the German Marshall Fund, was the intellectual engine behind the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a wise and discreet counselor—and, when he chose to be, an energetic propagandist. In retrospect he looks like a prophet, too.

Five years ago in July, he drafted and published a letter bemoaning the state of the transatlantic relationship. It was signed by more than 20 public figures, including the late Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic; Lech Wałȩsa, former president of Poland; Valdas Adamkus, former president of Lithuania; Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, former president of Latvia; and Mart Laar, former prime minister of Estonia.

The letter caused apoplexy in Washington. Nothing was ever enough for these whining, neurotic, ungrateful East Europeans. The Obama administration would not be asking them to spill blood in unwinnable and pointless wars in faraway places. Instead it had pushed through NATO contingency plans for the “new” members. This was a sharp contrast to the previous Bush administration, which had signally botched the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008.

But five years on, the points in the letter look both prescient and dated. It began by highlighting the debt that the region owes to the United States, both in the struggle against Communism and for integrating the former captive nations into the West. It went on to stress the region’s strong support for U.S. efforts to promote democracy and human rights in other parts of the world.

A lot has changed since then. Sentiment has ebbed. Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico has equated the presence of NATO troops in his country with the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He is a prime example of what the signatories were worried about when they wrote, “A new generation of leaders is emerging who do not have these memories and follow a more ‘realistic’ policy.” And the Obama administration gives the impression of having abandoned democracy promotion.

The letter then noted that “Central and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy.” Nobody would bother even to say that now. Yet only a few years ago, sorting out ex-Yugoslavia, expanding NATO and building the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline were all big U.S. priorities.

Next the signatories warned of “a growing sense of nervousness in the region.” They mentioned the impact of the global economic crisis and the danger of political fallout. The recent European Parliament elections provide ample grounds for their fears of “nationalism, extremism, populism and anti-Semitism.”

The “storm clouds” on the foreign-policy front that they forecast seem mere puffs of smoke compared with today’s thunderously overcast skies. They wrote: “Many countries were deeply disturbed to see the Atlantic Alliance stand by as Russia violated the core principles of the Helsinki Final Act, the Charter of Paris and the territorial integrity of a country that was a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council–all in the name of defending a sphere of influence on its borders.”

They were talking about the war in Georgia. But the consensus was different: Russia had been provoked by the recklessness of former President Saakashvili’s regime. Fault was on both sides. The war was a one-off. There was no need to rethink the basis of East-West relations. In retrospect, such a rethink might have been a good idea.

The letter continued: “NATO today seems weaker than when we joined,” adding “people question whether NATO would be willing and able to come to our defense in some future crises.” That was controversial, even heretical, then. Now it is a bleak statement of fact. With hindsight, Afghanistan was a high-water mark. Defense budgets are continuing to shrink in Europe. Political unity is fraying. The Newport summit will be about patching cracks, not mending roofs.

The strongest part of the letter deals with Russia: Our hopes that … Moscow would finally fully accept our complete sovereignty and independence after joining NATO and the [European Union] have not been fulfilled. Instead, Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st century tactics and methods. At a global level, Russia has become, on most issues, a status quo power. But at a regional level and vis-à-vis our nations, it increasingly acts as a revisionist one. It challenges our claims to our own historical experiences. It asserts a privileged position in determining our security choices. It uses overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests and to challenge the transatlantic orientation of Central and Eastern Europe.

At the time, that analysis was dismissed as “Russophobia” (a charge that Asmus ably rebutted). Now it is the mainstream approach of most governments in Europe. Even the NATO secretary-general states publicly that Russian intelligence is trying to stop the development of European shale gas through clandestine support for green groups. Intelligence agencies have been working on this for years, but no serious figure wanted to state the problem publicly.

True, some fears have proved unfounded. America’s “reset” with Russia did not lead to a full-scale sellout of Eastern European interests. The letter deplores the suggestion by the then Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, for a “Concert of Powers” to replace the continent’s existing security structure based on values and rules. Mr. Medvedev and his plan languish in richly deserved obscurity. But what the signatories call “creeping intimidation and influence-peddling” in the region has indeed led, in some countries, to something close to what they termed “a de facto neutralization.” The political support Russia has found for its South Stream gas pipeline in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia is a striking sign of change. At the time the authors were drafting the letter, the rival Western-backed Nabucco pipeline still had a realistic chance of being built.

The letter concludes with calls for action that are mostly as valid now as they were then. America should reaffirm its vocation as a European power, while its European friends should convince their leaders and societies to take a global view and shoulder more responsibility. NATO needs to be more credible in the region, with pre-positioning of forces, equipment and supplies. America’s missile defense plans should go ahead without a Russian veto. The United States should engage vigorously to help Europe diversify energy supplies and increase resilience.

But perhaps the most poignant point is the emphasis the authors give to the human factor. They urge both sides of the relationship to do more to foster exchanges, study trips and other programs to help develop a new generation of Atlanticists. In particular, they insist that bringing Poland and Romania into the U.S. visa waiver program should be a political priority. At the time, this issue aroused a sense of sizzling injustice in Poland. Five years later, the United States still demands visas from one of its most loyal allies. But the anger has ebbed. America matters less to Poles.

That is symptomatic. The letter was drafted and signed because people thought there was a good chance that it would work, and that U.S. inattention was just a temporary wobble. I fear that few people would think it worth the trouble now—not because American interest is already restored, but because they fear it never will be.

By Edward Lucas


Edward Lucas is a Senior Fellow and Contributing Editor at CEPA.

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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