November 16, 2012

Off the Boil: Why the American Election Aroused Little Excitement in ‘Eastern Europe’

Seen from the Soviet empire and what followed it, America mattered more than any other country. For the Soviet leadership, America was the ‘chief adversary’. For the peoples they held captive, America was the best hope of liberation. After the Iron Curtain fell, America retained pride of place: it was America that could get the Russian troops out, America that would expand NATO, America that had the most important voice in the IMF and the World Bank.

Seen from the Soviet empire and what followed it, America mattered more than any other country. For the Soviet leadership, America was the ‘chief adversary’. For the peoples they held captive, America was the best hope of liberation. After the Iron Curtain fell, America retained pride of place: it was America that could get the Russian troops out, America that would expand NATO, America that had the most important voice in the IMF and the World Bank.


cepa.org/ced/view.aspx?record_id=356.
Seen from the Soviet empire and what followed it, America mattered more than any other country. For the Soviet leadership, America was the ‘chief adversary’. For the peoples they held captive, America was the best hope of liberation. After the Iron Curtain fell, America retained pride of place: it was America that could get the Russian troops out, America that would expand NATO, America that had the most important voice in the IMF and the World Bank.
Times change. But the region’s role in the presidential election debate was conspicuous by its absence. And the peoples and governments concerned no longer expect to be high on the American agenda – whatever its outcome. President Barack Obama did not feel the need to trumpet his achievements in the region. Mitt Romney was far keener to highlight the administration’s weaknesses in the ‘war on terror’ than the failure of the ‘reset’ with Russia.
From the European point of view, the diminishing role of America partly reflects growing political maturity. America is not a monolith in either political or institutional terms. To take one example, Republicans are not the most reliable allies. Many who hailed Ronald Reagan’s efforts to undermine the Evil Empire could not forgive George H. W. Bush for his ‘Chicken Kiev’ speech on August 1, 1991, in which he seemed to urge the Soviet Union to stay together, just weeks before it collapsed.
Nor are Democrats softies on defence and security issues. From an ‘East European’ point of view, the Clinton Administration was too close to Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin. But it also launched NATO expansion. George W. Bush widened the Alliance further, but dragged the allies into costly and unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The picture from Barack Obama’s Administration is mixed too. Importantly, he pushed NATO to make contingency plans for all its new members, breaking a taboo that the Bush Administration had established in 2004. But he found the Central European allies querulous, and peripheral to the other huge problems he had to deal with. His Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, spoke for many in American policy-making circles in June 2011 when he blasted the NATO allies for their failure (in almost all cases) to spend any serious money on defence.
American impatience with that is no excuse for incompetence, of course. The botched announcement of the new missile defence plans in 2009 did severe damage to the relationship with Poland and the Czech Republic, where politicians had taken big risks to support a project that was now tossed aside with little warning.
For their part, Central European officials and politicians have gained a more nuanced understanding of how America works. It is not an institutional monolith. The Pentagon thinks differently from the Commerce Department. A few dedicated officials in top positions in just one bit of government can make a huge difference (think of the State Department in the Bush Administration). Different agencies behave in different ways at different times. Congress can take a tough and attentive line just when the executive branch is feeble and distracted. Business interests guarantee political attention: if you have a big American investor in your country, you can be certain that both the executive and legislative branch will make sure that you stay a friendly business environment. That includes making sure that other countries do not invade you.
Trying to paint a clear big picture gets harder and harder the more you know. Yet one big point does stand out. The past 20 years illustrate the declining importance in America of what might loosely be called ‘Eastern Europe’. For every post-war U.S. president, the relationship with the Soviet Union was the central feature of foreign policy, and an opportunity for profitable political grandstanding: think of John F. Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech in 1963, or Reagan’s ‘Tear down this wall!’ peroration 24 years later. American voters detested Communism and feared nuclear obliteration. That provided plenty of meat for politicians.
Even after 1991, the big foreign policy challenges still centred on the transatlantic relationship: idealists wanted to turn Russia into a showcase for capitalism and democracy; pessimists wanted to secure the ex-Soviet nuclear arsenals and make arms control deals while the weather was still sunny. Other problems have long since displaced these issues. The overwhelming national security problem for America is the rise of China; it is coupled with the deficit, which is eating away at the foundations of America’s claim to be a superpower.
Yet Russia still matters a bit. The success of campaigners for Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing Russian lawyer who died in prison in November 2009, to introduce visa bans on those implicated in his case has been startling. The move has provoked an infuriated and clumsy counter-attack from the Kremlin and delighted pro-democracy campaigners in Russia.
Russia played a role in Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign, though not necessarily one that he may regard as a triumph. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in March, Romney criticised the friendly and slightly conspiratorial tone that Mr. Obama took in a private (and accidentally broadcast) conversation with then President Dmitry Medvedev. Mr. Romney termed Russia “without question our number one geopolitical foe.” When Mr. Blitzer pressed him, he elaborated:
“In terms of a geopolitical foe a nation that is on the Security Council, that has the heft of the Security Council and is of course a massive nuclear power, Russia is the geopolitical foe and the idea that our President is planning on doing something with them that he’s not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming.”
Yet the Romney campaign gave little sign that it really wanted to rethink relations with Russia. His foreign policy team included nobody with radical views. A foreign policy paper published last year termed Russia a ‘destabilising force’ that needs to be ‘tempered’ and promised to ‘reset the reset’. It promised to review the New START arms control treaty and to promote European energy security. But it did not promise, for example, to reverse the draw-down of American forces in Europe.
That probably reflected a prudent assessment of American voters’ priorities. In so far as foreign policy matters at all, Russia comes way down the list, behind support for Israel and fear of China.
But a tougher policy (or rhetoric) on Russia would not necessarily be something that delights the ‘Eastern European allies’. They are not aching for a new Cold War: quite the opposite. Poland has had its own ‘reset’ (rather more successful than the American one). Ukraine no longer wants to join NATO. None of the new NATO members has been at the forefront of the Magnitsky campaign. They have a lot to lose in antagonising Russia and see little leadership or support from big Western countries on such issues. For example, Poland’s relations with Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgia, once warm, became icy.
If the policy on Russia is vague, the attention to ‘Eastern Europe’ is little better. For the Romney campaign, ‘Europe’ was a term of abuse: shorthand for sclerotic, over-regulated societies crushed by excessive welfare burdens. That was a good reason for the Obama camp to avoid mentioning the word at all (unless it is to blame America’s economic woes on the crisis in the eurozone). Mr. Romney did praise Poland’s economic success during his gaffe-strewn foreign policy trip in July. Some Poles were surprised to hear that their costly and incompetent government structures were counted as a beacon of success by the visiting American. (On the cost of tax collection, for example, Poland is the second most inefficient performer in the rankings of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, whereas America is in sixth-best place behind Estonia, Iceland and Sweden.)
But a fleeting visit and a friendly speech (however well-crafted and well-delivered) are not enough to make a difference, either with American voters or ‘Eastern European’ policymakers. Polish politicians in particular are in no mood for adventures. They no longer trust American leadership or pledges (they are still waiting for the Patriot missiles promised, in writing, by Condoleezza Rice in 2008). A low-key but stable relationship with the Obama Administration is disappointing by the standards of the past, but it is better than being exposed to big risks by a Republican administration that talks loudly but carries a small stick.
The big question for America is whether it wants to stay engaged in Europe, and in European security. In the 1990s, the answer was clearly ‘yes’ with varying degrees of enthusiasm depending on the costs and the stakes. America bombed Serbia and brokered peace in ex-Yugoslavia at Dayton; it promoted the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and tried to make the Caucasus safe for American energy companies. More Quixotically, it tried to save Moldova from falling back into the Kremlin’s clutches.
During the adventurist Bush years after 2004, when the administration seemed bent on inviting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, the answer was also positive, although less credibly so. After the Russian-Georgia war of 2008, the question came into sharper relief. America had not come to Georgia’s aid. Nor had it been able to restrain Mr. Saakashvili’s impetuousness. But it did make it clear to Russia that it could not press its advantage and take Tbilisi. And after the war, in a discreet meeting of American military officials with their Russian counterparts, the message was underlined: this war should not be seen as a precedent. As long as NATO survives, Article 5 means that America remains a back-stop in European security. Nobody can attack a NATO country without at least worrying that the full might of the United States will be brought to bear in its defence. But that worry is not the certainty it was 25 years ago. America is no longer in the front line of European security, but at best (in Mr. Obama’s inauspicious words) ‘leading from behind’. The main interest in Europe now is economic not military: the big worry during the election campaign for the administration was whether Angela Merkel would allow the European Central Bank, in effect, to print money to stave off disaster.
America’s lingering interest in European security will also be balanced by other considerations. So long as Russia has nuclear weapons, the nuclear superpowers will always have some kind of relationship. On top of that, the opening Arctic, negotiations in the UN Security Council, and (perhaps) common nervousness about China bring Washington and Moscow together.
The engagement in Europe is a complex, demanding relationship with a myriad of factors, personalities and priorities. Like a marriage, that relationship does not survive on inertia. It relies on deep ties of affection and companionship. On the basis of the past four years, it is fraying. America (seen from Europe) looks overburdened and distracted. Europe (seen from America) seems needy and irrelevant, a source of economic danger, but in security terms little to worry about.
Complacency is a besetting sin on both sides of the Atlantic. So far, the eurozone’s economic woes have had little political or security fallout. But the comforting picture of a Europe constrained by tough, enforceable rules and norms is out of date. Russia tried to take advantage of Iceland’s economic crisis. It has had more success with Cyprus and Greece. It pushes on in Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. It is winning friends in Viktor Orbí¡n’s Hungary. It has deep ties with bits of the Czech political establishment.
Somewhere on the continent, sometime in the next four years, something is going to go nastily wrong, either because of outside mischief-making or home-grown turmoil. And America (if history is any guide)  will have to deal with it sooner or later. Europe may not be an issue in the campaign. But you can bet that Europe will be an issue for the next administration.

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