Pressed by a Dutch reporter for his reaction to the seeming fact that “a lot of Europeans rather give the benefit of the doubt to Saddam Hussein than President George Bush,” then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld corrected:
Now, you’re thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don’t. I think that’s old Europe. … the center of gravity is shifting to the east. … Germany has been a problem, and France has been a problem. But you look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe. They’re not with France and Germany on this, they’re with the United States.
It was obvious then that “New Europe”—the post-soviet, pro-American democracies wedged between the Cold War’s former East-West divide—had the potential to eventually rival their neighbors in regional and global influence. They were poor and plagued with the corruption and bureaucratic residue of communism, but their eyes were steady, their hearts were hopeful and they boasted the entrepreneurial spirit of a young and ready people. Particularly if these new Central European nations could cooperate—forming a sort of anti-Warsaw Pact—their strategic importance, emergent markets and political temperament would prove invaluable to the U.S.
Adrian Basora, a former U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, hails 2011 as “The Year of Central Europe,” envisioning an Anglo-American-style “special relationship” between the U.S. and New Europe. He cites the ascension of Hungary and Poland to the rotating presidency of the EU (the Czech Republic held the post in 2009) and the revitalization of the “Visegrad” cooperation framework between Poland, Hungary and the now amicably divorced Czech and Slovak Republics. Basora suggests that an American-sponsored and far-sighted Visegrad group could emerge as a political force greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, they could emerge without U.S. patronage—to America’s enduring disadvantage—and this result has become far more likely during President Obama’s brief term of office.
In December, the Visegrad Four attended high-level talks in Washington. Basora was encouraged that the V4’s agenda was “forward looking,” rather than “dwelling primarily on fears of Russia and a desire for more emphatic U.S. security guarantees.” Yet the recalibrated focus was not due to the V4’s belated correction from backward dwelling to forward looking diplomacy, but rather their belated resignation to the futility of negotiating for their security with Obama. America’s “reset” policy toward Russia culminated in our breaking of promises to implement missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Slavic media expressed shock that America had sacrificed the trust and security of war allies to appease Russian demands for acquiescence in the former soviet sphere of influence.
But New Europe’s strategic awakening has only begun. The reprieve from oppression (a novel condition for these historically ill-situated nations) has converted former liabilities into formidable bargaining leverage. Geographic centrality allows them to isolate Russia from a unified EU, or expand Eastern Europe into a splintered EU. New Europe has the power to reward or prove a thorn in side of Europe’s great powers. Nothing would so profit U.S. strategic, diplomatic and economic interests as a pro-American trading-partner and power bastion between traditional (but often wayward) Western allies and the unpredictable Russian bear.
Though they have already begun to leverage their newfound influence, New Europe has not yet formed attachments of enduring loyalties. America should present an attractive option. Just as Great Britain has long courted American favor—knowing their seat at the European table was assured by virtue of power and geography—the V4 (“Plus More”) could similarly triangulate (or quadrangulate) to mutual advantage with the United States. America is on the cusp of becoming an old power in world politics—New Europe promises fertile markets and fresh partnerships. The political future is a game of speculation. New Europe is a safe bet.
America failed to uphold the promise of democracy in Central Europe following the Second World War, but proved itself a friend to young democracies upon the fall of the Iron Curtain. The U.S. has again slipped as of late, as Obama’s judgment has lapsed in identifying America’s natural allies. Kowtowing to the strong while Central Europe is yet weak relegates America to begging a future, empowered New Europe for forgiveness (a second time) for neglecting their friendship. Mindful to continually appreciate traditional allies (while tirelessly engaging reforming foes), America must embrace the emergence of a New Europe and commit itself as a faithful patron of their long-awaited ascension on the world stage.
Justin Paulette is a Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.