On June 12, 1987 Europeans listened ecstatically as U.S. President Ronald Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” On November 9, 2009 they heard U.S. President Barack Obama commemorate the collapse of the wall with a speech addressed, abstractly, to all of humanity. Post-communist Europe was not on the agenda.
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and one year after Barack Obama was elected president, the United States is no longer a European power. Post-American Europe, as shown in a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents a new geopolitical reality. The old continent is no longer the center of America’s strategic interests and the rebalancing of the European order is primarily a task better left to Europeans. America’s commitment to its European allies is now directly tied to their readiness to support America’s policies outside of Europe.
The sudden advent of post-American Europe came as a shock for the new NATO and EU member states. The muddled choreography of the Administration’s decision to scrap plans for a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic was distressing in its awkwardness and historical insensitivity, but it underscored the new reality. Central Europe has lost both its geopolitical and its symbolic significance to the United States.
It is now clear that Central Europe cannot and should not center its strategic thinking on a special relationship with the United States. The strategy of some Central European governments to focus on bilateral relations with Washington at the expense of working within NATO and the EU was a mistake. While claiming that NATO is ineffective, these governments relied on the presence of American troops and equipment as a security guarantee. The result of this misplaced strategy is that trust in NATO has declined, and Obama’s decision to scrap Bush’s controversial missile shield has caused a security crisis-as well as a crisis of confidence-in places like Poland and the Czech Republic.
The threat perceptions of Americans and Central Europeans have diverged over the last five years. Central Europeans are basically indifferent to the threat coming from Iran and Americans are little concerned about threats coming from Russia.
The Obama administration tends to view Russia as a declining and status quo power, while Central European governments tend to view Russia as resurgent and revisionist. Central Europeans are reluctant to engage in military operations outside Europe – there is practically no public support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan – and Americans are afraid of overreaching and try to focus their attention on the most menacing parts of the world. In America today, Central Europe is neither a problem, nor can it really help Washington to solve its problems.
When it comes to Russia, Central Europeans are rightly concerned about Obama’s “reset” policy, but for the wrong reasons. The common fear is that Central Europe’s interests will be traded for Russia’s support in isolating Iran or for some other issue critical to the American agenda. But it is the Central Europeans’ obsession with Russia that makes them most vulnerable in their strategic thinking: it creates the risk that Central Europe will be isolated not only in the transatlantic, but also in the European debate.
The Europeans should worry about the “reset” because Washington’s decision to negotiate with the Russians about strategic nuclear weapons and global warming leaves the problems of managing current Russia-West relations in the hands of the EU, which has proven problematic. The EU should offer its eastern neighbors political options, not technocratic ones. Seriousness would entail the option of future membership for the countries able and willing to join – and at present the EU seems incapable of placing that on the menu.
So, what does it all mean for Europe and for Central Europe in particular? It means that there will be no common transatlantic policy with respect to Russia. It means that there is an urgent need of a European “reset” policy, which would take into consideration the evolving dynamics of Russian-American relations. At present, only a joint German-Polish leadership can bring about such a policy.
Ivan Krastev is Chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria and an ECFR council member. Vessela Tcherneva is Head of ECFR’s Sofia office.
This piece was first published by CEPA.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.