Central Europe Pines For More Obama-Love

The biggest news reverberating around Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) these days is that of an open letter recently made public, addressed to President Obama and issued in the name of 22 notable political figures from countries of that region, including many ex-presidents and even one Nobel Prize winner (Lech Wałęsa). Nobody who signed this missive currently occupies any actual governmental position, however, but that is perfectly logical in view of its polite but urgent message that any current official would have to be too diplomatic to deliver: America is neglecting NATO in general and the CEE lands in particular.

As vacation season here on the European continent starts to shift into high gear, it’s difficult for any mere man-made initiative like this (as opposed to, say, a natural catastrophe) to create much of a sensation, but the leading Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza at least considered this news so important that it issued two slightly-different articles about it (here and here) from its Washington correspondent, Marcin Bosacki, who notes that there’s never been any sort of letter like this sent since 1989. Also, that newspaper also published on-line the complete letter in its English translation, including a table at the bottom explaining who all those 22 signatories are.

As I say, the letter’s general message is alarm over what these signatories consider to be an on-going decay in America’s relation with NATO and with those CEE countries. One can speculate that these worthies’ concern was first raised when they realized that the only actual visit by Obama to any of their countries in a long while was going to be that one trip he took to Prague at the beginning of April to attend the EU-US summit. But that occurred only because the Czech Republic happened to be holding the EU presidency at the time, and Obama anyway ignored the officials of the host Czech government highly effectively. (Recall that that was because half of them were but figureheads, the government having fallen two weeks previously, while the other half were fierce Euro-sceptics.) NATO is now weaker than back when we all joined it, these CEE politicians complain; at the same time, it’s clear that official Washington no longer thinks it needs to pay much attention to the region and instead is content just to “check the box” (Polish: odfajkować – perhaps best expressed in the American idiom as “punch the ticket”). That’s short-sighted, they claim, because continued friendliness towards the US on the part of CEE populations can by no means be assumed, not after the experience of having been dragooned to contribute forces to Iraq, or once a new generation of political leaders comes to power that has no personal memories of the revolutions of 1989. At the same time, Russia is emerging as a geopolitical threat once more, as a “revisionist” power that clearly does not accept the incorporation of these countries into the EU and NATO, one “pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods,” which include “overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation.”

In all, you could call this only a bold-ish sort of gesture, mainly because I think everyone realizes that President Obama is hardly adverse to receiving and considering carefully even implied criticism of this sort (and from a bunch of foreigners!), in stark contrast to his predecessor. Although it’s on the long side, the letter itself makes for interesting reading, and one has to approach with respect any message with the endorsement of Václav Havel. (Not necessarily Lech Wałęsa, though; sure, he is a brave and determined son-of-a-gun and a great historical figure, and he holds the Nobel Prize, but he’s hardly known as contemplative or analytical. On the other hand, another of the signatories, former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, was indeed particularly respected both for her thinking and political performance, at least by CEE cognoscenti, during her time in office.)

That said, I do have a number of arguments with this letter:

  • The writers make a serious mis-step early on: “Twenty years after the end of the Cold War,” they write, ” . . . we see that Central and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy.” Hey, I got some real bad news for you guys: It can accurately be asserted that CEE countries have never been “at the heart of American foreign policy.” Americans really didn’t care much about any foreign countries (with the possible exception of Latin America – cf. the Monroe Doctrine) until after World War II, and the concessions to the Soviets at Yalta ensured that CEE would continue to be quite uninteresting to American authorities. (Yes yes, there was all the talk about “rollback” from John Foster Dulles during the Eisenhower administration – until the failure by NATO to do anything in the face of the Soviet suppression of the 1956 revolution in Hungary gave the lie to all that. By the way, in this letter the signatories do make sure to get a brief dig in at what the US did to their countries at Yalta.) Even during the series of revolutions in 1989-90 that freed them from Soviet domination they were hardly “at the heart of American foreign policy,” with one exception: East Germany. To be sure, all of those self-liberating events – in Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. – were happy news, but remember that the serious diplomacy and American effort of that time was devoted to the problem of how to allow Germany (and Berlin) to reunite without sparking off World War III. Afterwards, i.e. in the 1990s and in this decade, the CEE countries have continued to miss out being “at the heart of American foreign policy” if only because the Persian Gulf (and also perhaps China) has claimed that position.

    These CEE worthies hereby get their message off on the wrong foot, foolhardily maintaining that their part of the world was ever “at the heart of American foreign policy,” and so implicitly asserting both the importance of what they have to say and the obligation of the Americans to react in some substantial way. I daresay that they are fated to be quite disappointed here; President Obama surely will input their views in some way into his foreign policy apparatus, but I seriously doubt that this will prompt any sort of response or actual adjustment to American practice.

  • As indicated above, there’s quite a bit of complaining about Russia here, and in general it is completely justified. However, the letter goes a bit too far when discussing the brief Russo-Georgian war of last August: Russia is said to have violate Georgia’s territorial integrity “all in the name of defending a sphere of influence on its borders.”

    It’s time for a bit of recollection here – all this happened not even a year ago. It was the Georgians who actually struck first and so started this war, remember? It’s true that the Russians ruthlessly exploited the opportunity they thereby gained to drive Georgian forces back across the border and beyond, and that those Russians were very slow to leave Georgian soil once the cease-fire had been agreed upon (for all I know, there could very well still be there). But it was Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (not a signatory here, by the way) who unleashed all of this.

  • Towards its final part, the letter makes quite a curious argument as part of a complaint over the US visa regime, which still requires a visa for entrance into the US from a few (but not all) of the countries that these ex-politicians represent: “It is incomprehensible that a critic [of the US] like the French anti-globalisation activist Jose Bove does not require a visa for the United States but former Solidarity activisit and Nobel Peace prizewinner Lech Walesa does.”

    What do they mean here? Of course things should be that way! Are they saying that the US is supposed to evaluate foreigners for being allowed or denied entry into the country based on their personal attitude vis-à-vis the US? No way! Ideally that is just the opposite of how things should be (not that that hasn’t been true in cases in the past). It’s in fact much better to base the visa-requirement, or the waiver of same, on an individual’s country of citizenship, according to things such as whether that country itself allows visa-less entry to Americans, American immigration policy towards that country’s citizens, etc. I do admit that Lech Wałęsa constitutes an outrageous outlier who of course should be free to travel to the US without needing a visa; surely exceptions can be made for special cases like that.

  • There’s also mention here – as indeed there needs to be – of the US effort to place a set of anti-missile rockets in the area, with radar in the Czech Republic and the rockets themselves in Poland, the whole system ostensibly guarding against nuclear-armed ballistic missiles emanating from Iran. The signatories to this letter make it clear that, from a political point-of-view, this effort has now passed the point of no-return and must be taken all the way to full deployment “[r]egardless of the military merits.” (And also regardless of “what Washington eventually decides to do” with regard to it!) That’s pretty amazing language, if you stop to ponder it: “Stop making sense, I don’t want to hear any more facts or arguments about whether it will all actually work or not – just deploy!”

In actuality, this whole CEE missile-defense deployment is yet another mess (although a relatively more minor one) that George W. Bush left behind for his successor. In the first place, the sheer technical feasibility of what those anti-missile missiles might some day be asked to do (often phrased along the lines of “knocking a bullet out of the air with another bullet”) is still completely unproven. (So much for “military merits” right there.) In the second place, the threat it is allegedly assigned to counter – Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles – is many, many years into the future, if indeed it comes at all. (Remember that there is still legitimate controversy over whether Iran is truly after nuclear weapons, as opposed to merely usable civilian nuclear energy.) In the third place, it was only natural that this sort of deployment of military assets so close to the Russian border would anger and disturb that government. For a while there, this project was further muddled by what seemed to be disinclination by majorities of both the Czech and the Polish populations to actually have their respective governments allow in-country deployment of the assigned equipment and personnel. It was in fact only after that Soviet misbehavior in Georgia of last year that both governments became much more enthusiastic and the two treaties were signed – mainly, one can assume, due to the tighter US commitment to each country’s defense that they implied.

Now it’s clear that the Obama administration – far from itself regarding this missile-defense deployment as a done deal – is having serious second thoughts, as the above considerations suggest that it well might. There’s absolutely no doubt that the subject came up during President Obama’s recent visit to Moscow, on the way to the G8 summit in Italy (with of course no visit to any CEE country included in the itinerary), even though no decisions on this subject were reached or agreements arrived at. But it seems reasonable for these CEE signatories – and the governments in which most of them formerly served – to start to worry that eventually some US-Russia deal will be reached about this deployment over their heads. Insofar as this letter can function to try to prevent that, to remind the Obama administration that CEE nations (and of course the Czech Republic and Poland in particular) need to be directly involved in decisions about how (or whether) to carry the deployment forward, then it does carry a valuable message. But of course its remit clearly goes way beyond that, in ways that you have to wonder whether they are in fact very useful, especially when brought forward in this very direct and public manner.

UPDATE: The Economist is now featuring an article on this CEE letter under the “Europe.view” rubric on its website (meaning that I doubt that it’s to be found in the print edition). The author – unnamed, as is usual for The Economist – also takes a rather dim view of it, writing that it “risks sounding plaintive and naive” and that “[s]adly, other stuff matters more.” He also includes a rather biting observation from a “savvy American official”: “They are asking us, in principle, to risk world war three in their defence. If their country stands for organised crime and economic collapse, that’s a hard sell.”

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