If wishes were horses
Jul 16th 2009
The pragmatic argument for American engagement
VOICES do not carry easily across the Atlantic. But when they belong to people like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, their message may be heard even in the noisy corridors of Washington, DC. The two best-known ex-communist leaders are among 21 signatories of an open letter to the Obama administration, urging it to rethink its policies towards central and eastern Europe.
The 21 are all strong Atlanticists, who remember America’s vital role in ending the evil empire and in anchoring the former captive nations in NATO. As well as seven former presidents (two from Poland, one each from Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Romania) the signatories include heavyweight politicians and officials, plus two of the region’s most insightful political analysts, Kadri Liik from Estonia and Ivan Krastev from Bulgaria.
Their main message is that the gains of the past 20 years are more fragile than they may seem. The letter speaks of a “growing sense of nervousness in the region” caused in part by the global economic crisis, and in part by worries about Russian assertiveness and the West’s feeble response. NATO seems weaker than when its new members joined; they doubt if it would come to their defence if needed. That (along with the cack-handed approach of the Bush administration) has eroded once-fervent Atlanticist sentiments. In short, if America and NATO lack the will to defend the eastern members, why should eastern European soldiers risk their lives in Afghanistan? Plunging defence budgets make that issue urgent.
A second worry is that the generation of leaders in the region who instinctively looked to America is moving out of public life (like, one might note, most of the signatories). Similarly, the upcoming generation of American politicians will not have spent their formative years goggling at Checkpoint Charlie in divided Berlin, or feeling their spirits soar at the courage and triumph of dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov.
In short, central and eastern Europe, whose nations once championed a strong relationship between their continent and America, could quickly become introverted, isolated and unhelpful. The United States, gripped by “realism”, would deal with the big issues in its relationship with Russia and increasingly neglect the countries in the Kremlin’s front yard.
The signatories want to revive the region’s relationship with America with two big moves. First, they want the new administration to explicitly commit itself to continued engagement in Europe, both in NATO and with the EU. Second, the signatories’ want their countries to lobby for Europe to have a more responsible and active relationship with America. That would mean, for example, a “renaissance” of NATO, with real contingency planning and a more united attitude to dealing with Russia.
It is all fine stuff. The administration’s eastern Europe policy is indeed worryingly vague. But the letter risks sounding plaintive and naïve. Supporting Mr Walesa in the 1980s was both a noble cause and helped speed the Soviet empire’s demise. But Russia does not pose the existential threat to America that Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union once did. Sadly, other stuff matters more. And it is strange to blame the West for complacency about the region: gloom would be a better word. “They are asking us, in principle, to risk world war three in their defence” a savvy American official said recently. “If their country stands for organised crime and economic collapse, that’s a hard sell”.
A better argument would be that the region’s renewed success would be the best long-term hope for change in Russia. Few things would worry the Kremlin more than proof that political freedom, the rule of law and sensible foreign policy work well in nearby countries.
Friday, July 17, 2009