A post-American Europe

The era of post-American Europe has begun. It is not a Europe abandoned by Americans or a Europe deprived of American security guarantees; neither is it a creature that is likely to vanish should the Republicans enter the White House in 2012. Post-American Europe represents a new geo-political order in which the Old Continent is no longer at the centre of America’’s strategic interests, one in which the decision about a new constellation of powers depends primarily on Europeans themselves. It also means that American obligations towards their European allies will depend on the allies’’ readiness to support US policies outside Europe.

The White House decision to scrap the US plan to develop an anti-ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic was shocking in its clumsiness but it was the right decision from a strategic point of view. Washington chose a date that was inappropriate (17 September), a form that was unsuitable (a unilateral announcement late at night) and circumstances that were rather suspicious (it happened on the eve of Obama’’s meeting with Medvedev) for informing Warsaw and Prague of the change of decision regarding the shield. However, even though it may not appear so, the fact that Washington chose to do it in bad style will be ultimately beneficial to us since it has helped us to gain a better understanding of the new situation.

It is now clear that Central Europe cannot base its strategic plans on a special relationship with the US. The strategy pursued by some Central European governments since the beginning of the war in Iraq, focusing on bilateral relations with Washington at the cost of cooperation with NATO and the European Union, has proved to be wrong. Regarding NATO as ineffective, these governments believed it was only the presence of American troops and equipment on their countries’’ soil that would provide a real guarantee of national security. As a result of this policy confidence in NATO in these countries diminished considerably and the Obama administration’s decision to abandon Bush’’s controversial anti-missile shield has stirred up heated discussions in countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, in spite of the fact that public opinion in Central Europe was not in favour of the plan to deploy the shield on their territory.

Another contradiction in the strategy of Central European countries consists in the fact that these countries have been the most vocal advocates of new obligations towards Georgia and Ukraine and of their admission into NATO and the European Union. But in fact, the Central European countries will suffer most because certain NATO obligations do not seem to have enough credibility. In short, Central Europe has to choose between the rules of symbolic politics, under which every compromise is regarded as a sign of weakness, and the principles of real politics, where absence of concessions can lead to a serious crisis.

An examination of Transatlantic Trends, the most recent opinion poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, demonstrates that today, at the beginning of the 21st century, Central Europe is not a natural ally of the United States.

The US currently feels less secure than Europe (even Central Europe). The threats which the Americans and the citizens of Central Europe fear most have changed over the past five years. We are not particularly worried about the threat from Iran, while the Americans are not so concerned about a potential threat posed by Russia. The current US administration believes that Russia has become less significant, while the majority of Central European governments perceive Russia as a country that is gaining strength and showing revisionist tendencies. Public opinion in Central Europe is not keen on any involvement in military operations outside the continent (the NATO mission in Afghanistan has found practically no support), whereas the Americans are afraid of asking too much of their allies and focus only on those parts of the world that are in greatest need of assistance. In short, Central Europe does not add to America’’s problems but Washington cannot count on its help in solving its own problems either. While the citizens of Central Europe think in regional terms, the Americans think in global terms.

As for Russia, Central Europe is right to be concerned about the change in the direction of American policy but not necessarily for the right reasons. There is widespread concern that the Americans are likely to sacrifice the interests of Central Europe in order to secure Russia’’s support for isolating Iran or for some other goal. In this sense the attitude of the Poles and the Czechs echoes the African folk wisdom which says: if elephants fight it’’s bad for the grass but it’’s a hundred times worse for the grass if they make love on it. This obsession with regard to Russia is the most controversial element of Central Europe’’s strategy. It entails the risk that our region will find itself on the margin not only of the transatlantic, but also the pan-European, debate.

Meanwhile it is not so much the success as the failure of Obama’’s policy that Europe should to fear. If Russia does not fulfil Obama’’s expectations, he will respond by withdrawing even further from Europe. America needs Russia to achieve a new global balance of power but this need does not top the list of American political goals. Obama is hoping to convince Medvedev that Russia runs a smaller risk of losing its status as a world power if it cooperates with the US than if it opposes it. However, the chances that this policy will be crowned with success are not at all great. This policy does not take into account that, while Washington regards Moscow as a declining power, Moscow is equally convinced that Washington has lost its power position and it is very unlikely that it would stake everything on the American card. In this situation everything will depend on how powerful and convincing the Russians will find Obama. At the same time, Obama’’s success will depend to a large extent on whether he manages to gain Russia’s support. Perhaps it’’s a matter of dialectics, or simply of bad luck.

The reason why Europeans should be concerned about the change of direction is that Washington’’s decision to start negotiating with Russia on nuclear weapons and global warming leaves it up to the EU to regulate relations between Russia and the West in the area that formed the sphere of influence of the former USSR and that can cause problems.

So what does it all mean for Europe in general and for Central Europe in particular? There will be no joint transatlantic policy towards Russia. That is why Europe must urgently develop a new policy towards Russia, bearing in mind the dynamic of the Russian-American relations. Currently such a policy has a chance to be developed only under a joint German-Polish leadership. The recent election in Germany gives us hope that such a joint leadership is possible.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Polish in the Gazeta Wyborcza on 5 October 2009. 

We are grateful to Ivan Krastev for the permission to publish this text in English.