Looking west, hopefully
Nov 13th 2008 | WASHINGTON, DC
Eastern Europe awaits a new American president nervously but in hope
DETAINING the next president of the United States for three hours in what an eyewitness called a “malodorous” small room at an airport in the provincial Russian city of Perm looks, in retrospect, to have been a pretty bad idea. No matter that the Kremlin muttered an apology for delaying Barack Obama, along with his mentor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, in August 2005. The hold-up was blamed on a muddle over paperwork—although some Russia-watchers suspected it was a calculated Kremlin snub to the Republican Mr Lugar.
Mr Obama now plays down the episode, but his first-hand experience of the Russian bureaucracy’s capacity for at best capricious incompetence and at worst vindictiveness could yet prove telling. His team of hundreds of foreign-policy experts ranges from those who see the Bush administration’s policy as dangerously confrontational to those who think it too soft. Michael McFaul, a Stanford academic who has become a caustic critic of the Kremlin, is an influential Obama adviser. But it remains to be seen how many people Mr Obama will pick from his own team, and how many from the Hillary Clinton camp of experienced Russia hands.
The Democratic Party is in general rather less hawkish than many of Mr Obama’s senior advisers. Yet the prosaic truth is that, whoever secures the top jobs in the new administration, American policy towards eastern Europe is likely to be shaped mainly by events and bureaucratic drift, not personalities. Barring a new crisis (such as another war in Georgia), eastern Europe is unlikely to get anything like as much attention as the economy. Even more conveniently, the main decisions can easily be fudged or postponed.
Thus the Bush administration is still trying to push for Ukraine to be given a clear path towards future NATO membership. It reiterated this at a recent high-level NATO-Ukraine meeting in Estonia. But if Mr Obama wants to cash in his popularity in Europe, he is more likely to do so by asking European countries to send more troops to Afghanistan, not to swallow their objections to NATO membership for two increasingly unconvincing candidates: a chaotically divided Ukraine and an erratic, indefensible Georgia.
An Obama administration may concentrate on the nitty-gritty of military reform in the Ukraine rather than grand promises of NATO membership. That would be welcome in Russia. So too might be Mr Obama’s rather more doveish line on nuclear weapons. But another sore point with the Kremlin is America’s plans for missile defences, and especially for the siting of ten interceptor rockets in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. These—if they work—might stop or deter an Iranian missile attack on America or Europe. But public opinion in the Czech Republic and Poland remains unenthusiastic. And Russia has now threatened a bunch of countermeasures, including putting nuclear-capable missiles in the Kaliningrad exclave and targeting the missile-defence installations with its own nuclear arsenal.
Mr Obama, like many Democrats, sounds sceptical on missile defence. With no money allocated to the programme by Congress, it will be easy to keep the plans alive on paper, but to do little to promote them in practice. And if talks with Russia about nuclear weapons do go ahead, a deal on missile defence might be thrown in. Czechs and Poles may feel a touch queasy as these issues are discussed over their heads; but there is little they can do about it in practice.
Nor is it likely that an Obama administration will fight hard for greater European independence from Russia’s monopoly of east-west gas pipelines. The Bush administration promoted Nabucco, a pipeline that would bring Caspian and Central Asian gas to Europe via Turkey. But a shambolic and inattentive European policy on pipelines and energy dependence in recent years has left policymakers in Washington feeling that they are wasting their time. If the Europeans cannot look after their own interests, why should America?
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Looking west, hopefully