Thursday, December 03, 2009

Disquiet on the eastern front

America, NATO and eastern Europe

Nov 26th 2009 | WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition

Can a distracted America remain a bulwark for eastern Europe?

DAMAGE control is never as good as damage prevention. Despite repeated reassurances, the countries of eastern Europe are worried about security. Their biggest concern is NATO, where officials are meant to be drafting contingency plans to defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Barack Obama pushed this idea at the NATO summit in April. A recent big Russian military exercise, which officials say culminated in a dummy nuclear attack on Poland, highlights the region’s vulnerability.

Yet little is happening. NATO officials blame a “lack of consensus”. Western European countries, notably Germany and Italy, are against anything that is not first discussed with Russia. A likely outcome is a generic plan, to be presented privately to the Baltic three in December, that will not deal with specific threats.

Nobody really expects a military conflict. But if NATO even hints that it is no longer in the business of guaranteeing the defence of all its members, it may encourage Kremlin mischief-making over such issues as minority rights or transit to Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave. Eastern Europeans are also cross about the European Union’s recent carve-up of top jobs. Germany and France showed that they decide the EU’s foreign policy, and that easterners do not count, says one minister in the region.

The Americans admit to botching the announcement in September of a new missile-defence plan—upgraded, not cancelled, they now insist. Vice-President Joe Biden has visited America’s main central European allies, as well as Ukraine and Georgia, to dispel feelings of neglect. A formidable American warship toured the Baltic during the Russian exercises. Six senior generals have visited Latvia alone in the past 12 months; bilateral military exercises are planned next year. The administration has offered Poland exercises with Patriot missile batteries armed with live warheads, whereas previously it had offered only dummy drills.

Few people anywhere mourn the departure of George Bush and the strains he placed on America’s allies. But his team of hard-bitten officials who dealt with eastern Europe is still missed. The idealistic Mr Obama has brought a different lexicon to foreign policy: realpolitik is in, talk of common values is out. Some find this a refreshing change from the hectoring of the Bush administration. But eastern Europeans are distressed to hear so much talk of “partners” (bracketing countries as different as China and Poland) and so little of “allies”.

A further worry is the effect on NATO of the war in Afghanistan. The more that NATO’s success there is defined as crucial to the alliance’s credibility, the more eastern members fear the consequences if it fails. Proportionately, eastern European NATO members have helped most in Afghanistan. The American-backed security pledge at the heart of NATO matters most to them too. Western Europeans who privately see NATO as an anachronism are unbothered by American disengagement.

Admittedly, the Obama administration is preoccupied with domestic issues and with other pressing matters abroad. Europe as a whole, not just the eastern Europeans, cannot expect constant nannying. But even in Washington concern is mounting as well. “Why is the most popular man on the planet, leading the world’s strongest country, unable to get relations with America’s closest allies right?” fumes one (apolitical) former official.

Many explanations can be offered. Inexperience is one. European and American observers talk of disorganisation in the administration’s National Security Council. One European official speaks of a “black hole” there. Some note a tribal desire among Obamaites to be different from the Bushies: if they favoured eastern Europe, the new policy must be chillier. Others blame a habit of preferring a friendly atmosphere to tough decisions. “It is not irredeemable. But they have to redeem it,” says Kurt Volker, another former official.

Part of the problem is that the EU and NATO are so frustrating to deal with. The fault lies on both sides—but some of it reflects bad staff work that has made Mr Obama’s summits with the EU and NATO both boring and useless. Even where interests chime, progress is slow. A year after the EU first mooted its “eastern partnership” to boost western ties with six ex-Soviet countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine), talks on American involvement are only just starting. A stronger Europe policy in Washington might make easterners less twitchy about America’s dealings with Russia.

Such worries have led Poland to push for a stronger bilateral security commitment from America. That is ambitious, but also risky. If it fails, it could heighten the sense of abandonment. If it succeeds, it could create a two-tier NATO in the east: a few countries with a direct relationship with America, and a vulnerable rump without. A senior Pole denies this is a danger, noting that Polish military plans already include defence of Lithuania. The stronger Poland is, the more it can protect its neighbours. “They are our West Berlin,” he says. Hardly a comforting thought.

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