Preventing a new fault line from emerging on Europe’s northeastern ensures that the process of democratic transition may again be strengthened in its journey eastward, not only in Eastern Europe but possibly, one day, in Russia itself.
These are not the best of times for those who believe in the centrality of the Transatlantic alliance to Western security. The past five years have brought a devolution of the U.S. security relationship with Europe, accentuated by declining defense budgets on both sides of the ocean, by extensive U.S. military redeployment out of Europe and, most of all, by the lack of a strategy to address the changing security dynamic in Europe in order to sustain the relationship going forward.
There is plenty to address. Amid a continuing economic slide, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is drawing to a highly ambiguous close; the United States faces new challenges in the Middle East and Asia even while Europe ponders the unraveling along its southern flank in North Africa and the increasing turmoil in the Arab world. Despite all this, there seems to be little appetite on either side of the Atlantic to revisit the fundamentals of the relationship or to ask what its next purposes might be. Instead, Transatlantic officialdom has taken a deep breath as it enters a major free-trade negotiation whose prospect for broad success is not so good.
The waning of America’s attention to Europe has been accompanied on the Continent by the geostrategic reconfiguration of NATO’s northeastern flank, namely the area encompassing Central Europe and the Baltic States and their perimeter. This reconfiguration has been driven by three interlinked factors: the resurgence of neo-imperial thinking in Russia; the restructuring of Europe’s economic power distribution; and the weakening of hard security linkages between the United States and its allies. This reconfiguration has not gained much attention in Washington because U.S. priorities have been elsewhere. But on Europe’s northeastern flank the resurgence of Russian influence in Belarus and Ukraine, in particular, threatens to warp the entire region’s security prospects. It has re-awakened historical dilemmas thought a mere decade ago to have disappeared forever with the demise of the Soviet empire.
Prior to 1989 no one thought that Central Europe and the Baltic littoral composed a unique European geostrategic space. Instead, “Eastern Europe”, the Cold War’s geopolitical term of art, spoke to the ideological tenets of the time. The end of communism then midwifed what Joseph Rothschild called a “return to diversity”, and post-communist Europe quickly consolidated into new regional groupings. The restoration of “Central Europe” (or Mitteleuropa in classic Germanic terminology) as a structural category could be justified only if bracketed by Western and Eastern counterparts. Otherwise, it would be nomenclature without any real-world referent. But it soon came to be justified: Institutional transformation driven eastward by NATO and later EU enlargement bumped up eventually against the limits of a Russian state still capable of looking westward. This is what created the structural foundations of the new Central European geostrategic space.
For a while, it seemed that Western institution building would prevail over geostrategic legacies after all. For the countries that used to be caught in the vortex of great power competition, NATO enlargement offered a pathway for overcoming the historical dilemmas of being either in the middle of some empire or on the periphery of some great power. Back then Ukraine was still expected to join NATO at some point, and hopes for a democratic transformation of Russia were not yet extinguished. And as long as the process remained open, Central Europe could hope that by entering an established security system backed by U.S. power it would eventually escape its “center-periphery” dilemma.
Those expectations shuddered to a halt in 2008. The defining events that unwound the would-be post-Cold War European security paradigm came on the heels of the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit, when the alliance chose not to offer its Membership Action Plan to either Ukraine or Georgia. Some rosy rhetoric notwithstanding, the summit shut the door to NATO’s future eastward enlargement, making further debate over Ukraine’s NATO membership largely academic. The Russia-Georgia war that soon followed threw the final bolt, as Moscow’s victory ended any prospect of NATO enlargement into the Caucasus. However one judges the wisdom of the decisions made at the Bucharest Summit, they left Central Europe once more on a periphery.
U.S. policy priorities changed, too. Under the Obama Administration U.S. policy shifted away from traditional allies and toward an effort to engage “difficult states.” The much hyped “reset” with Russia became a landmark in this new engagement policy, which had originally been aimed at countries such as Iran, Syria, North Korea and Burma. (Though it was always more of a public relations accident courtesy of Vice President Biden than a seriously thought-through policy.) The price tag Moscow demanded for continued logistical assistance for ISAF in Afghanistan and progress on nuclear arms control was straightforward: the scrapping of the proposed Bush-era missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.
In hindsight, the Obama Administration’s reversal of that deployment decision was the turning point in how Central Europe saw its relations with the United States. Never mind that the revised European Phased Adaptive Approach made better military sense and actually had some capacity to degrade Russian IRBM capabilities; for the Poles and the Czechs the key was not the original system itself, but the anticipated value of the U.S. military presence the shield would have brought to their countries. They saw that presence as the first tangible and direct measure of American commitment to their security, particularly in light of the fact that prior to 2010 no military contingency plans had ever been readied to redeem NATO’s Article 5 pledge if that became necessary. To aggravate matters, the Obama Administration’s 2009 cancellation announcement came on September 17, the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet 1939 invasion of Poland—a conjunction that did not go unnoticed in Poland, to put it mildly.
Finally, there was a larger historical dimension to the 2008 Caucasus war. Small-fry as it was in kinetic dimensions, it nevertheless shocked the system by bringing state-on-state conflict to Europe’s supposedly placid periphery. The muted Western response was even more troubling to many, though it is doubtful that any U.S. Administration would have intervened muscularly in a conflict in which the target of Russian action was hardly blameless. In the end, with a small military campaign the Russians halted the west-to-east enlargement momentum, with backpressure building up in Belarus, Ukraine and, by extension, in the Nordic-Baltic region and Central Europe. For Ukraine in particular, the “reset”, coming on the heels of the 2008 war in the Caucasus, marked the beginning of the return of history, it having been made clear that its chances of joining the West were now exponentially smaller than before, and that ultimately it could end up on the wrong side of a re-emerging divide.
The greatest beneficiary of the Obama Administration’s “reset” and its “pivot to Asia” has been Russia, which is today an openly revisionist power intent on rebuilding its influence and reducing the West’s reach into its “near abroad.” Moscow is determined to change the post-Cold War balance of influence in Europe, seeing NATO enlargement as the primary embodiment of its precipitous decline as a superpower.
Vladimir Putin made this clear at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, declaring that Russia from then on would follow its own counsel on global security policy. Then Russia suspended its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty review, and the 2008 invasion of Georgia punctuated the point. It remains to be seen whether Putin’s policy will lead to a more aggressive stance in the future. But the rhetoric emanating from Moscow, as well as its actions in Syria and Iran and with regard to Edward Snowden, suggest that more confrontation with the West will be forthcoming so long as it doesn’t put Moscow too far forward on its skis.
The United States and Europe have been slow to recognize the return of Russia to the geopolitical game in the eastern periphery of Europe; both became lazily habituated to Russian weakness as the new norm. Even today, with mounting evidence of state consolidation under Putin and with Moscow’s defense expenditures on the rise, Russia is still often dismissed in Western capitals as a minor nuisance. But Putin’s project for the restoration of state power at home runs parallel with his determination to rebuild Russian influence abroad and, most of all, to restore the country’s military prowess.
There is thus a long-term dimension to Russia’s current policy shift. The 2012 reelection of Putin as President set the country’s course probably well into the 2020s—assuming Putin survives challenges to his control, not from harmless liberals but from new conjugations of oligarchs and power brokers who have slipped from the center’s grasp. In that respect, the most important development for North-Central Europe has been Russia’s announced military modernization program, expected to cost around $700 billion over ten years. Although the amount is roughly what the United States used to spend in a single year, it is nonetheless a major inflection point in the context of the Nordic/Baltic/Central European power equation. The planned deployment of the S-500 and S-400 surface-to-air missiles is troubling. For the region as a whole, however, the deployment of Iskanders, Russia’s mobile theater ballistic missiles, to the Kaliningrad District would be without question a balance-altering development.
Russia has also moved to shore up the political dimension of its security relationships in the post-Soviet sphere, including closer defense cooperation with Belarus and Ukraine. The 2009 Zapad and Ladoga military exercises that simulated an attack on Poland and the Baltic States served as a wake-up call not just for the former Soviet satellites, but also for the Scandinavians. Since then Sweden and to some extent Finland have acted like de facto members of NATO, and have done a lot more with and for the alliance than some formal members—so maybe the Russian-Belarusian duet has not been such a smart act after all.
Ultimately, however, Ukraine is the centerpiece of Russian policy in the post-Soviet space in Europe. Ukraine’s integration into NATO would have dramatically changed the balance of power in the region, bringing about a structural shift in European security and in effect forcing Russia to abandon any hope of restoring its hegemony over the core region to its west. If Russia succeeds in bringing Ukraine back into its orbit, it will be positioned to ratchet up pressure further westward. Today Ukraine is hanging in the balance: It is heavily dependent on Russia for energy, Russia has a growing economic stake there, and the counter-pressure of pro-Western forces seeking an EU association agreement is weakening. In the long run, Ukraine’s overall prospects for keeping its distance from Russia and integrating with the West are slim, for there is virtually no chance that Ukraine will become a member of the European Union, even if the association agreement goes through.
Today, then, there is growing unease in Central Europe that Russian influence is on the upswing, especially in light of U.S. defense budgets cuts and the Obama Administration’s decision to prioritize Asia. Russia’s increased leverage in and over Ukraine is shifting the balance in Central Europe, raising the prospect of even more westward pressure. Continued dependence on Russia for energy, especially as it seeks to acquire more pipeline infrastructure and banking clout in Europe, makes the Polish shale gas project and the plans to develop nuclear power that much more urgent.
The U.S. interest in hard security relations with Europe has been declining with each passing year. Defense budget cuts, before and after sequestration, coupled with the continued reduction of its military presence and the March 2013 cancellation of Phase IV of the EPAA missile defense system, have raised questions about U.S. staying power in Europe. America’s NATO allies seem to believe that U.S. promises of “leading from behind” will give way to not leading at all, particularly as an assortment of Middle Eastern and perhaps other crises unfold. So even though Washington and Brussels have been talking about a new free trade agreement—the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—in the military sphere the distance between America and Europe has been growing with each passing year.
U.S. disengagement can be measured in troops and equipment already moved or soon to be removed from Europe. The plans, announced in January 2012, to adjust U.S. posture as part of the overall reduction plan, would eliminate several forward-stationed units, rebase others to the United States, and then only periodically rotate those units to Europe for training and exercises. On March 1, 2013, just two weeks before the EPAA Phase IV decision, the Defense Department announced a series of force structure changes for the U.S. Army in Europe for 2013–16, identifying the units currently in Europe that will be inactivated and/or returned to the United States. No amount of rhetoric can make rotations equal to stationing. These plans will deeply diminish the political dimension of the U.S.-European military security relationship, which has provided the glue of the liberal international order since 1945 and which is the sine qua non for mobilizing NATO for use out of area.
Europe has responded by attempting to manage expectations. With fatigue over Afghanistan growing year by year, members are increasingly focusing on problems closer to home. The majority of Europeans seem to be floating at various strata of denial, though some, for example Poland, show determination to preserve and enhance their defense capabilities in order to remain a viable partner for America and to keep the security guarantees credible. So there is still hope, especially in Central Europe, that the past five years of decline in Transatlantic security relations can be reversed.
Europe’s economic challenges are also driving internal transformation as well as changes in the Transatlantic security relationship. As the traditional Franco-German axis continues to unwind, economic disparity across the continent is growing. Germany is now the leading economic power in Europe, which takes on added political relevance now that the United Kingdom seems to be moving away from any tight connection to the European Union. Ancillary to the consolidation of Germany’s leadership position is the response of an economically stronger Central Europe and the Nordic/Baltic region to a newly assertive Russia.
In 2013 the measly 0.3 percent growth rate in the second quarter was touted as a harbinger of recovery that would lift the eurozone from its longest recession in history. To keep matters in perspective, however, the growth rate was only 0.1 percent higher than what the economists had projected—hardly a reason to break out the champagne. The eurozone recovery is trailing both Japan and the United Kingdom, both of which expanded by 0.6 percent, and the United States, which grew by 0.4 percent. As has been the case throughout the Great Recession, all eyes have remained on Germany, with questions raised about whether it can sustain its second quarter 0.7 percent growth rate. Unemployment in the eurozone remains at a record high—12.1 percent—with youth unemployment about double that, and with Italy, Spain and the Netherlands still mired in recession.
The economic misery of the past five years has established a clear division between Europe’s south and north, which has weathered the storm much better. In consequence, debate points increasingly in the direction of more centralization and more top-down federalism, putting Germany even more firmly in the driver’s seat of institutional change in the Union. The European Commission has agreed to give France and Portugal more time to put their finances in order, but the fact that there is any regional growth at all is already seen as vindication of Chancellor Merkel’s insistence on austerity policies. That vindication is likely to put Berlin on an even firmer path to lead Europe. German leadership has grown stronger still with Merkel’s triumph in the September general election.
Still, European leadership is not what it was. Historically, the post-World War II reintegration of Germany into Europe rested on the U.S. security guarantee in the face of the Soviet threat, the Franco-German reconciliation, and Germany’s view of itself as a derivative foreign policy actor. The rule was that Germany could act only within the European project, and the European project could prosper only within a Transatlantic context. Germany thus became the quintessential European multilateralist and one of America’s closest NATO allies.
Since 2008 Germany’s view of itself as a policy actor has changed as the crisis reordered its relations inside the European Union. While shouldering the brunt of the bailout assistance to overleveraged European governments and banks, Berlin became an increasingly overt norm-setter. So whereas historically German policy had to be “European” first, by 2010 the policies of individual European states had to be “German” first, at least on key fiscal policy issues.
The surge of German power and influence has put to rest the traditional concepts of Europe’s west and east, and replaced them with a stronger north and south orientation. The eurozone crisis and the breakdown of the south, in particular the debt gripping the Greek, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian economies, contrasted starkly with growth in the north, especially the strong performance of Germany and Poland in Central Europe, Norway and Sweden in Scandinavia, and Latvia and Estonia in the Baltics. Indeed, the continued modernization of the post-communist north, whether through direct foreign investment, autonomous growth or through EU structural transfer payments, has increasingly set the region apart from Europe’s south. The growing role of Poland’s connection with Germany and Sweden has strengthened its position in the Visegrad Four (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) and the Weimar Triangle. In contrast to EU investments, the United States has been perceived as less relevant to Central Europe’s economies despite narrow sectoral exceptions here and there.
The reduction of U.S. military presence on the Continent, and the de facto demilitarization of many countries in Europe set next to the re-militarization of Russia, are creating a perception in Central Europe that its eastern periphery is becoming a new fault line. The progressive delinking of Ukraine from the West, if and when it becomes complete, will be the defining event, especially if it is marked by some highly symbolic occurrence. The resurgence of Russian military power along the periphery, regardless of what share of the modernization budget will actually be implemented, is already being felt and will continue to shape defense policy in the region. Today Central Europe is contemplating an historically familiar formula: growing insecurity and a need to rely on one’s own military capabilities to an ever greater degree, no matter how uneven the competition seems to be.
The process has been accelerated by changes within the “old EU”, especially changes in the Franco-German link as Germany’s influence continues to grow. It is very unlikely that the Franco-German relationship, which had defined the European project before German reunification, will return to anything like its earlier shape. It has been altered not through a grand new design, but because Germany’s ad hoc approach to the eurozone crisis has prevailed as policy even as the French economy appears rather too southern. Some EU members still instinctively hew to the old pattern of intra-EU relations, for instance Spain and Belgium, but today there is a growing realization in Europe that this will not be possible much longer.
The key factor is whether Berlin will prioritize its relationship with Moscow relative to its new role as the dominant Central European player. In Central Europe and the Baltics, the long-term change is adaptation to the perceived decline of U.S. interests and to the rise of German influence. This anticipatory adaptation was manifest in the landmark November 2011 Berlin speech by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, recognizing Germany’s influence and welcoming its more active role in the European Union in cooperation with Poland and other countries. A similar policy development is underway in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and across the region. Germany is fast emerging as the unquestioned “go-to state” in Central Europe, whether the Germans like it and know what to do with such visitations or not.
While Germany’s role is viewed predominantly in a positive light, Russia remains the largest security concern. It was in this light that the Central Europeans pressured NATO to address their territorial security concerns vis-à-vis Russia in the 2010 New Strategic Concept, and successfully lobbied the Obama Administration to approve the first NATO contingency plans for their defense. The consolidation of the NATO track is supposed to be further underlined by the November 2013 Steadfast Jazz exercise, the largest of its kind since the Cold War. Stipulating the participation of more than 5,000 land, air and naval forces, it will test the command and control capabilities for the NATO Response Force in the event such deployment to the region were necessary in a crisis. And yet the actual level of NATO commitment to the exercise remains in question, with approximately 70 percent of the force generated by the Visegrad Four and only a token U.S. presence of one company, 1,000 French troops and two British warships. Increasingly, the Nordic, Baltic and Central European states are questioning whether such exercises offer sufficient reassurances, and they now wonder whether a follow-up exercise planned for 2015 will actually take place at all.
The trend over the past five years pointing to the decline in Transatlantic cooperation should seem counterintuitive, since the United States and the European Union remain the two largest economic areas of the world, and each is the other’s main trading partner. Collectively, America and Europe account for more than 40 percent of world GDP and a third of global trade. Clearly, then, the devolution of Transatlanticism cannot be found in underlying economic realities, though the crisis has frayed many established links.
Even more significant than trade are the structural sinews of the Euro-Atlantic economy, which rest on the volume of foreign investment. The scope of integration of U.S. and European companies operating on each other’s shores, and the millions of workers they employ, constitute an enduring link. These ties remain a unique feature of the Transatlantic economy, distinct from U.S. and European economic relations with Asia. The Transatlantic economy still accounts for over half of world GDP in terms of value, and 41 percent in terms of purchasing power; altogether it is the largest and wealthiest market in the world, accounting for $5.3 trillion in trade. And even though in 2012 China eclipsed the United States as the world’s biggest trading nation, its total volume for the year was less than the Transatlantic volume of trade.
It is therefore high time for such a wealthy Transatlantic partnership to reinvest in such seemingly old-fashioned concepts as “the West” and “the Transatlantic Community.” The political destinies of Europe and the United States remain inextricably intertwined through the foundational ties of national interest, democratic principles, and economic and military power. We need to remember the time when illiberal states, be they of fascist or communist varieties, demanded a collective response not just to protect national sovereignty but also to reaffirm the larger notion that democracies linked across the two sides of the Atlantic share interests, values and purpose. In a crisis, America and Europe remain each other’s best allies.
Yet when Soviet communism fell and the idea of the collective West was celebrated, Transatlantic ties began to fray, notwithstanding professed Western solidarity during the Balkan wars. The warning signs were already there: Europe’s inability to rise up to a crisis next door bred a sense of confusion and ultimately latent disdain in Washington. When the shock of 9/11 came, the sinews of the larger Euro-American community were strained again, but the surge of solidarity with America made it difficult to recognize the cracks, for by then America and Europe had begun to fall into distinctly different conceptual worlds in dealing with terrorism, Afghanistan and ultimately Iraq. Against this backdrop came a generational change of leadership, and memories of close Cold War collaboration receded further. With the redefinition of U.S. policy priorities during the Obama Administration, an America “leading from behind” and seeking to engage with difficult states outside of Europe was soon seen as simply distracted from its core security relationship.
From a larger perspective, the apparent waning of Transatlanticism and the emergence of a new fault line along NATO’s northeastern periphery are a remarkable state of affairs. Considering the history of Transatlantic cooperation and that the United States and the European Union collectively boast an economic and institutional capacity unmatched by any other combination of states, the two should be moving in tandem. Likewise, nowhere else in the world is there the same level of social capital, systemic consolidation and political continuity as in the collective West. And yet the received wisdom filtering through policy conferences, the media, publications and social networks has all but conceded that the best America and Europe can do is to manage a soft landing and to pave the way for a smooth “rise of the rest.”
This is a strangely narrow and ultimately self-defeating attitude. The United States and Europe remain as essential to each other’s security, prosperity and well-being as they have ever been, more so today as globalization continues to flatten technological disparities, bringing selected territorial and numerical advantages back to the fore. Global systemic transitions always carry risks of challenging and even subverting the international order, and it should be obvious to both Americans and Europeans that while they have benefited handsomely from the system currently in place, the vaunted “rise of the rest” may fast mutate into the “rise of the different.”
In this larger context, no other part of Europe has more to lose from declining U.S. security presence and political attention than Central Europe. The United States remains the only external player able to quickly and directly affect the changing policy dynamic in the region, but for the past five years its attention has been elsewhere. While focused on Asia and, even against its will, the Middle East, Washington has been slow to parse the realities of Russia’s resurgence amid the declining literal and political strength of NATO.
The end of the Cold War did not make geopolitics disappear forever and ever. It was not a secular version of a messianic age. Preventing a new fault line from emerging on Europe’s northeastern periphery is in America’s overriding strategic interest. It not only ensures that the process of democratic transition may again be strengthened in its journey eastward, not only in Eastern Europe but possibly, one day, in Russia itself. It also takes an historical devil’s playground of competition, accident and war out of circulation. This is what a very great power with a supreme interest in supplying common global security goods ought to be about. To not see this is to be strategically blind.