Central Europe tugs Obama’s sleeve

Twenty-one two Central and East European politicians of a certain (largely mid-90s) vintage, including eight former heads of state or government (including Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Mart Laar) and six former foreign-affairs ministers, write a letter to Barack Obama whose message can perhaps be summed up as, “Hey! Look over here!”

Key message elements:

• “Our nations are deeply indebted to the United States.” These countries have not merely felt that debt in the abstract, they have worked to pay it off: “We are Atlanticist voices within NATO and the EU. Our nations have been engaged alongside the United States in the Balkans, Iraq, and today in Afghanistan.”

• But — you knew there was a “but” coming — it’s getting a bit quiet at the other end of the line. “Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, however, we see that Central and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy…. Indeed, at times we have the impression that… many American officials have now concluded that our region is fixed once and for all and that they could ‘check the box’ and move on to other more pressing strategic issues.”

• “This view is premature.” Obama (and, well, Wells) may be willing to look past last year’s ugliness in South Ossetia and Abhkazia, but for these countries that have historically paid the price in blood for being on Russia’s border, it’s not so easy. “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 Euroatlantic Partnership Council — all in the name of defending a sphere of influence on its borders.”

• The nub of the problem, as these 21 22 see it: “NATO today seems weaker than when we joined. In many of our countries it is perceived as less and less relevant – and we feel it. Although we are full members, people question whether NATO would be willing and able to come to our defense in some future crises.”

• The mere arrival of Obama in the White House will not repair a frayed transatlantic relationship. “Some leaders in the region have paid a political price for their support of the unpopular war in Iraq. In the future they may be more careful in taking political risks to support the United States. We believe that the onset of a new Administration has created a new opening to reverse this trend but it will take time and work on both sides to make up for what we have lost.”

• And if not, well, memory is short. “There are fewer and fewer leaders who emerged from the revolutions of 1989 who experienced Washington’s key role in securing our democratic transition and anchoring our countries in NATO and EU. A new generation of leaders is emerging who do not have these memories and follow a more ‘realistic’ policy.”

• Meanwhile there’s a bear in the woods. “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods…. 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.”

• So the leaders have a wish list. First, “The United States should reaffirm its vocation as a European power.” Second, “We need a renaissance of NATO as the most important security link between the United States and Europe.” Third, some ornate language on missile defence that essentially says, don’t let Russia dictate your policy there. Fourth, a perhaps surprising line coming from leaders who were long viewed in Paris and Berlin as distracted, equivocating members of the EU: “We need the United States to rethink its attitude toward the EU and engage it much more seriously as a strategic partner.”

• A little further down the list, ho-ho, is visa politics. “It is incomprehensible that a critic like the French anti-globalization activist José Bové does not require a visa for the United States but former Solidarity activist and Nobel Peace prizewinner Lech Walesa does. This issue will be resolved only if it is made a political priority by the President of the United States.”

• And finally, the shout chorus. “In the 1990s, a large part of getting Europe right was about getting Central and Eastern Europe right. The engagement of the United States was critical to locking in peace and stability from the Baltics to the Black Sea. Today the goal must be to keep Central and Eastern Europe right as a stable, activist, and Atlanticist part of our broader community.”

A year ago, when Candidate Obama was off to London, Paris and Berlin, I wrote (in a blog post that was as roundly ignored as this one probably will be) that he was ignoring a new and strategically significant part of Europe. The attitude revealed in that campaign swing has been translated into the early days of the Obama presidency, and some of the leading lights of that region have noticed. This is very far from being the biggest problem Obama faces. But it’s a problem.

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