Biden's Task in Eastern Europe: Reassurance


Oct 20, 2009

This commentary originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on October 20, 2009.

After the decision to cancel missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic, the US needs to do more than damage control to soothe ties there.

Vice President Joseph Biden's trip to eastern Europe this week provides an important opportunity to reassure Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania that the US is committed to their security.

This reassurance is needed, especially in the wake of the Obama administration's controversial decision to cancel the deployment of missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic – Although President Obama's decision to scrap the Bush missile plan was the right one from a military and strategic point of view, the public rollout was less than ideal.

Polish and Czech leaders were informed of the decision only at the last second, making them feel like dispensable pawns in a broader US strategic game rather than the valued allies they have long been. This contributed to the misperception that the move was designed to placate Russia, and that eastern European interests would suffer as Washington attempted to reset relations with Moscow.

This perception is false. The decision was prompted by a shift in the nature of the Iranian threat. But it nevertheless damaged the US relationship with the region – a key relationship already in difficulty. Mr. Biden will therefore need to do more than just repair the damage done by the missile defense decision. He will also need to articulate a clear and coherent policy that explains where eastern Europe fits into broader US strategy toward Europe and Eurasia, and how the US commitment to security in central and eastern Europe will benefit, rather than suffer from, the resetting of US-Russian relations.

Public support in eastern Europe for the United States has plunged recently. According to a poll last month by the German Marshall Fund, the populations of Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia are much less enthusiastic about Mr. Obama and the US than are their western European counterparts. In the past, support for the US was much stronger in eastern Europe than in western Europe.

This unease has its roots in three closely related factors:

Russia's political and military resurgence. Having lived for long periods under Russian and Soviet domination, the central and eastern European countries are acutely sensitive to shifts in Russian power. They worry that Moscow's intimidation tactics and use of energy as a tool of foreign policy could result over time in a gradual erosion of their political independence.

Concerns about NATO's political will. Many eastern European members increasingly question whether NATO really would defend their security in a crisis. These fears have been reinforced by western Europe's reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, which many regional observers interpreted as part of a broader tendency among European NATO members to accommodate Russia's bullying of its neighbors.

General uncertainty about the future directions of US policy toward Europe. The eastern Europeans' unease is driven not so much by fear of a "new Yalta" as by a sense of benign neglect. They know the Obama administration is not about to sell them down the river for a few winks and nods from Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. But they worry that with the enlargement of NATO and the European Union accomplished, Washington has checked the eastern European "box" and moved on, assuming that the region will remain politically stable, economically prosperous, and pro-American in the future. To many eastern Europeans, this judgment seems at best premature.

In short, the vice president should go beyond mere damage control after the missile defense decision, and articulate a clear policy toward the region as a whole. This policy could be based on three basic tenets:

First, the US commitment to the security of Poland, Latvia, and Romania is and will remain as strong as the commitment to England, France, or Germany.

Second, an improvement of US-Russian relations will benefit all of Europe and will not be pursued at eastern European expense.

Third, the US firmly rejects the idea of spheres of influence, which remains a major goal of current Russian policy.

Announcing such a policy would not alleviate all the current unease in both central and eastern Europe. But it would significantly reduce it and give the current US policy toward the region renewed clarity and a sense of strategic purpose.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation and Christopher S. Chivvis is a political scientist there. RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.

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