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European Alarm Over Obama

A group of distinguished "intellectuals and policymakers" including Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa recently issued "An Open Letter to the Obama Administration from Central and Eastern Europe." Describing themselves as "Atlanticist voices within NATO and the EU," and supporters of America for "promoting democracy and human rights around the world." But they fear that concern for their countries is no longer at the heart of American foreign policy. NATO's passive reaction to Russia's incursion into Georgia makes them wonder if the US is really committed to their defense. Meanwhile, joining NATO and the EU has not, they discover, led Moscow to accept their "complete sovereignty and independence." Even if Russia is a status-quo power globally, within its own neighborhood it is a "revisionist power, pursuing a 19th century agenda with 21st century tactics and methods." They distrust Russian president Medvedev's plan for a "Concert of Powers." Over time Russia's "creeping intimidation" could lead, they fear, to "a de facto neutralization of the region." Meanwhile, its young elites identify less and less with America.

To reverse this deterioration, the group proposes a six-point agenda for the next twenty years. Among their prescriptions and observations are the following:

• The US "should reaffirm its vocation as a European power."
• NATO should adopt "proper Article 5 defense planning for new members."
• Members should dialogue with Moscow only with a "coordinated position."
• Missile-defense should not be scuttled by unfounded Russian opposition.
• The US and the EU must take their strategic partnership more seriously.
• Security cooperation must include energy security.
• US visa policy favoring West European countries like France over stalwart allies like Poland and Romania is "incomprehensible" and should be corrected.

What all this boils down to is that the authors are nervous about recent US efforts to repair relations with Putin's Russia. The fears of so distinguished a group should be heard with respect. They are correct to see Obama's recent initiatives pointing toward a major reversal of the Bush administration's Russian and European policy, and to some extent of the Clinton administration's as well. It was under Clinton, after all, that NATO first began expanding to former parts of the Soviet Union, notably the Baltic states. Meanwhile, NATO's "partnership for peace" program was sponsoring joint maneuvers and close military relations with former Soviet republics in Central Asia. A few years later, the Bush administration was proposing NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, together with a NATO missile defense system installed in several CEE countries.

Russia has grown increasingly unhappy with these policies and more and more inclined to intervene politically, economically and even militarily to counter them. All along, however, the policies have enjoyed vociferous backing in the United States from ardent NATO supporters and a variety of ethnic pressure groups.

In the Bush years, the policy was not only implicitly anti-Russian but anti-European as well. When France and Germany opposed the Iraq war, Secretary Rumsfeld famously invoked America's influence over the "New Europe" of the CEE states. Such a divisive policy suited very well the Bush administration's vision of a dominating U.S. in a unipolar world. But it also provoked a developing crisis in transatlantic and European relations. On the one hand, France and Germany were denied support from much of Europe. On the other hand, they were backed by Russia and China in the Security Council. Four Eurasian great powers lined up against America's unipolar pretensions. Initially, these events were widely read in Washington to signify a disintegrating European Union. In retrospect, however, the forming of a Eurasian bloc to counter the U.S. was an early symptom of a nascent geopolitical revolution. It pointed to the transition from a unipolar hegemony to a plural world of several great powers. The nascent Eurasian bloc continued to check American initiatives, particularly toward Iran. This provoked an American rage against Europe, France in particular.

By Bush's second term, however, it had gradually burned itself out. America's mounting difficulties in living up to its unipolar pretensions began to compel a new interest in repairing relations with "Old Europe." Bush's initial policy was coming to seem egregiously inappropriate. It most assuredly does not fit America's current predicament. With our military overextended and our finances in grave crisis, circumstances compel us to cooperate with the world's other great powers, rather than attempt to dominate them. This is the world that Obama faces and that the U.S. must somehow adapt to. The effort to "reset" relations with Russia is thus part of a broader strategy, one where the US is more likely to appease Russia and Europe than confront them in their own neighborhoods. We can pray that Russians and Europeans also have the wisdom to collaborate in building a new system of collective security--one that aims to turn everyone's individual weakness into the world's collective strength.

In this context the position of the distinguished CEE leaders seems profoundly mistaken. Given the region's history, their apprehensions are easy to sympathize with. But history clouds rather than enlightens their vision. Today, policy that antagonizes Russia on the one hand and France and Germany on the other, and relies for order on overwhelming American military power, seems a highly unpromising foundation for stable security across Eurasia. Under present circumstances, it is certainly not a policy in America's own interest. Many people fear we did not respond very well to the opportunities presented to us by Gorbachev twenty years ago. Perhaps our own Western crisis now gives us the chance to do better. Obama seems to sense this. No doubt it is too much to expect the CEE countries to greet any such policy with enthusiasm. No one can deny that they have suffered terribly over the past century. We can only hope that they do not, once more, take the wrong path.

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