Saturday, July 11, 2009

CEE and America

America and eastern Europe

Not captivating now
Jul 9th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Eastern Europe watches nervously as America improves relations with Russia
WHEN he returns home, a routine task in President Barack Obama’s in-box will be to proclaim the third week of July “Captive Nations Week”. Established by Congress in 1959 to show American solidarity with countries trapped inside the Soviet empire, it amounts nowadays to little more than a press release and a couple of parties. But it echoes a decades-old American commitment to the region’s freedom and security, sealed by NATO’s expansion to include 12 ex-communist countries.

That has created both loyalty and expectations. Eastern Europe sent troops uncomplainingly to Iraq. Several countries have soldiers in Afghanistan: indeed, some smaller ones have suffered remarkably high casualties there, largely unacknowledged by their bigger allies. And Poland and the Czech Republic agreed to host a new missile-defence system to counter a possible threat from Iran. This irks the Kremlin, which claims to fear American encroachment in its own backyard.

The east Europeans find Mr Obama an easier ally than his predecessor, George Bush. They are broadly pleased with his trip to Moscow. Unlike Mr Bush, who looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and got “a sense of his soul”, Mr Obama was not gulled into giving Russian leaders cloying praise. He brushed off attempts to trade influence in eastern Europe for help on issues such as Iran.

But on eastern Europe’s own future, the new administration’s touch is less sure. It is giving out mixed signals on the missile-defence deal signed by its predecessor. Polish and Czech leaders who argued in favour of the scheme feel exposed. One says, disapprovingly, that America’s wobbles are “unimperial”. Even tacit linkage between delaying or scrapping the scheme and pleasing Russia will heighten those worries.

Talks on a plan to put a battery of Patriot air-defence missiles in Poland are bogged down in arguments over cost, whether they will be armed and the legal and tax status of the Americans who come with them. Promises of help to modernise the Polish armed forces (“we provide the boys, you provide the boots” as a Polish official once put it) have proved frustratingly empty.

The region’s biggest fear is the health and credibility of NATO. The new members want the alliance to work on proper military planning, explicitly taking Russia into account as a potential threat as well as a partner. That has been taboo since the early 1990s and is opposed by some west European countries with close business ties to Russia. But such issues are low down the White House’s to-do list. “Obama doesn’t have a Europe policy. But neither does Europe,” says an east European leader wryly.

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