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Great expectations

Ronald D. Asmus examines the challenges facing the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as they enter the European Union and NATO.

Signing NATO's accession protocols: The ink had barely dried when the Alliance found itself in a fundamental crisis (© NATO)

The past decade or so has been good for Central and Eastern Europe. Communism collapsed, the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea regained their independence and succeeded in establishing new democratic and market-based political and economic systems. With the exception of the former Yugoslavia, the region largely avoided the return of authoritarian nationalism that many commentators feared would rear its ugly head in the wake of communism's demise.

In foreign policy terms, these countries were equally successful. Former dissidents turned diplomats and statesmen negotiated a soft landing on the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the peaceful demise of the Warsaw Pact. They then set their sights on a goal that at the time seemed visionary, highly desirable but largely unreachable: to rejoin a West from which they had been artificially separated for nearly half a century by joining the European Union and NATO. They wanted to secure their newly won independence through these institutions and achieve the same degree of security many in the Western half of the continent took for granted.

These goals have now been achieved. With the "Big Bang" rounds of EU and NATO enlargement set in train at the Copenhagen and Prague summits, Central and Eastern Europe is being firmly anchored in the West. The historical dilemma of being weak nations caught between Germany and Russia has been resolved. These countries will now be part of those Western structures in which Germany itself is firmly embedded; and the same structures will now allow these countries to deal with their Eastern neighbour in a spirit of partnership but from a position of strength. Underpinning it all lies a security guarantee from the most powerful country in the world, the United States.

At times, it almost seems like an Alice-in-Wonderland story. In a region where history has tended to be cruel and the good guys have all too often lost, they have for once triumphed. In the early 1990s, a US newspaper carried a cartoon whose caption read: "Eastern Europe — Isn't that where the wars start?" Today, there are no wars in sight and the region is arguably more democratic and less threatened than at any point in recent memory. The centre of gravity of the West has shifted several hundred kilometres eastward, a fact reflected in the language we now use to describe the region. Whereas a decade ago we still used the phrase "Eastern Europe", now these countries are referred to as Central and Eastern Europe and the phrase Eastern Europe is used to refer to Ukraine.

Against this backdrop, one can hardly blame Central and Eastern Europeans for wanting to kick back and savour these accomplishments by perhaps smoking a cigar and enjoying a glass of wine from one of the region's modernised and upgraded vineyards. But just as the region appears poised to realise this historical triumph, new and dark clouds have appeared on the horizon. The paradox is that just as Central and Eastern Europeans arrive at their destination in the West, the Western Alliance they have worked so hard to join increasingly appears in disarray. In the wake of a transatlantic train wreck over differing attitudes to the threat presented by Iraq, fissures have appeared in the foundations of those key institutions that Central and Eastern Europeans believed would shape and guarantee their future — the European Union and NATO. Core institutions that many assumed were more or less permanent elements of a new post-Cold War security order suddenly appear in danger of unravelling.

Whether they can or will be repaired once the dust has settled on Iraq, or whether the fissures are just the beginning of a more fundamental transatlantic and European realignment is still unclear. What is clear is that the West is headed into more uncertain and turbulent waters. The new threats of the 21st century have moved from the abstract realm of theory to reality. And to date the West has failed to come up with a common response to meet them. For once, Central and Eastern Europe is not at the epicentre of this new geopolitical turbulence. But its effect on the region and on the institutions to which it has entrusted its future prosperity and security is likely to be profound. Looking ahead, three major challenges can be identified in the coming decade. The first lies across the Atlantic; the second within Europe; and the third at home.

Atlantic challenge

The first challenge facing Central and Eastern Europe is the Atlantic one. Having lived in a rough geopolitical neighbourhood in the 20th century, the incentives to join NATO were self-evident to most Central and Eastern Europeans. Alliance membership would provide defence against a residual Russian threat as well as the security umbrella under which these countries could integrate and recover from forty years of communism. It brought with it a security guarantee from the United States, a country that was trusted because it harboured no alternative agenda in the region. NATO's engagement in the region was seen by many as a precondition for solving a broad set of problems ranging from bilateral relations with Germany, regional rivalries and, perhaps most important, facilitating the normalisation of relations with Russia.

Yet the ink had barely dried on the protocols of accession for the second round of NATO enlargement when the Alliance found itself in a fundamental crisis sparked by disagreement over Iraq. To be sure, this was not the first transatlantic crisis and was arguably avoidable — the result of mistakes by nearly all the key players. The fact that the West's attempt to deal with a totalitarian dictator ended up badly fracturing NATO, the European Union as well as the United Nations is hardly a testimony to anyone's diplomatic acumen.

But beyond the specifics of Iraq, the past few months have revealed deeper differences within and across the Atlantic that are likely to reverberate for some time. And the debate over why we had this train wreck is one pregnant with policy consequences.

At one end of the spectrum is what one might call a "structuralist" school of analysts who argue that the growing asymmetry of power is fundamentally reshaping American and European views of the world. Many in this school contend that a break-up was increasingly likely, if not inevitable. The opposing view is that this conflict was not inevitable and is largely attributable to the different impact 9/11 had on American and European thinking, compounded by the mistakes of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. In other words, the real problem is the lack of a shared sense of strategic purpose.

Such different analyses lead to different policy prescriptions for the way forward. If the problem is rooted in a deep, growing and immutable asymmetry in power and outlook, then there is little prospect of fixing it in the short-run, if at all. The implications of this train of thought for the transatlantic relationship are clear — and ominous. Europe has ceased to be the grand strategic problem it was in the 20th century and will not be an important strategic partner of the United States in the future. And NATO will not be a central institution as Washington confronts the challenges of the future because differences in worldview, priorities and the use of power are unlikely to be bridgeable.

A second school is less extreme. It wants to preserve NATO but avoid the kind of fractious debates that nearly tore the Alliance apart in recent months. Its motto is "damage limitation". Its proponents will argue that NATO needs to be maintained to preserve a transatlantic link and sustain a pool of military forces that can be tapped into on an ad hoc basis, if and when needed to form coalitions of the willing. At the same time, such advocates will shy away from overtly pushing it to assume significant new missions beyond Europe where the danger of deep differences paralysing the Alliance is too great. Rather than count on Europe as a whole acting through NATO, the United States should accept the fact that it can only look to a subset of Allies. In a bigger and looser Europe, Washington should focus less on institutions and more on rebuilding bilateral ties with those countries that share its views and priorities.

A third school of thought draws yet another conclusion, namely that the Alliance can only be saved through a radical reform that reharmonises strategic perspectives on both sides of the Atlantic. Once the dust has settled in Iraq, it would advocate a "pick-up-the-pieces" strategy to put the transatlantic relationship back together again, focused on dealing with these new threats. It argues that the best way to heal the wounds left by the Iraq crisis is to get on with new projects that will demonstrate NATO's ability to turn the page and coalesce around the need to handle new challenges. It would invoke the legacy and spirit of the Alliance's founding fathers to push for a renaissance of transatlantic cooperation.

For the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, it is clear that the Alliance that they are joining is not the well-oiled machine they thought it was. On the contrary, they are entering an Alliance in the midst of its own increasingly fractious debate over its future purpose and strategic direction — a debate they will be expected to participate in immediately.

At the core of this debate is the issue of NATO's purpose in a post-communist world in which peace in Europe is increasingly assured but new threats from beyond Europe are on the rise. And the central question facing all Allies, both new and old, is whether they want to tackle the new threats of the 21st century on a transatlantic basis and whether the Alliance can and should be transformed into the framework to organise such efforts.

These are not easy questions for Central and Eastern European countries. In an ideal world, many in this region would probably have been content for NATO to remain more or less as it was when they set out on their quest to become members. To the degree that they want NATO to take on new missions, they would like to see it focus on their "near abroad" and concentrate on finishing the job in the Balkans, stabilising Ukraine, democratising Belarus, perhaps reaching out to Central Asia and the Caucasus and keep chipping away at the enormous project of trying to transform Russia into a normal, democratic European country.

But they know that those priorities are not necessarily shared, not least by the United States. From an American perspective, the question of war and peace on the continent had largely been solved and the most pressing strategic challenges now come from beyond Europe. If NATO is going to remain central to American foreign policy, it has to address those challenges that are central to American and broader Western security. For Central and Eastern Europe, this means that if they want the United States to remain fully engaged in Europe, then they must join Washington in pushing for this broader transformation of the Alliance — even if it means that the Alliance goes in a direction that some Central and Eastern European countries may not find easy either politically or militarily.

In some ways, many leaders from Central and Eastern Europe, perhaps unburdened by the internal Alliance debates from the Cold War, have had fewer inhibitions and have been more ready to support NATO acting "out of area". The first round of new members faced the test of going to war in Kosovo; the second round has faced the same issue in supporting Washington on Iraq. In both cases, leaders from the region have drawn on their own history to make a strong and eloquent case on the need for the West to use its might to stand up to dictators. During the Iraq crisis, Americans have been pleased to see Central and Eastern European leaders standing up and invoking their own historical experience with totalitarian rule. It confirms the long-held American hope that these countries could bring fresh blood, vigour and enthusiasm into the Alliance.

But Central and Eastern European support also has limits. The capabilities of these new Allies are still modest, especially when it comes to future expeditionary missions. While the elites remain strongly Atlanticist, the depth of such feeling in the societies of the region may be a different matter. Support for NATO dropped significantly in the region following the Kosovo campaign and popular opposition to the Iraq war in the wider public was almost as strong as in some Western European countries. It may be that the recent experiences with dictatorship has made these societies more willing to stand up and defend freedom than some countries in Western Europe. But does the average Slovak or Romanian really understand the issues of Afghanistan, Iraq or the Middle East better than his French or German counterpart? Politically, will these countries be able to sustain support for Washington over the opposition of major European powers?

Many Americans are clearly hoping that all of Central and Eastern Europe will evolve into a set of solid Allies like Poland today — strongly Atlanticist, willing to fulfil its NATO obligations and more capable of doing so as their economies grow stronger. Many Western Europeans, on the other hand, seem to consider the Atlanticist leanings of these countries to be a temporary and passing phenomenon. Which way Central and Eastern Europe will go over time is a key question the leaders of this region will have to answer for themselves.

European challenge

The second challenge facing Central and Eastern Europe lies in Europe. It centres on the future of the European Union and European integration more generally. That future may in some ways be as uncertain as that of the transatlantic relationship. For while it has been the row across the Atlantic over Iraq that has received the most attention in recent months, a second set of fissures has emerged across the continent among EU members, both current and prospective. To some degree, those cracks are attributable to the same differences on Iraq that have divided NATO. But, as in NATO, they also mask a deeper divide about what the European Union is about, who speaks for Europe and how to shape relations with the United States.

As an American who believes that a strong Europe is in America's interest and wishes to see the European Union evolve into a more coherent and unified actor, I cannot help but wonder whether it is not also headed into increasingly difficult waters. There are, of course, the well-known list of problems and unresolved issues already on the European Union's plate: stagnant economic growth, structural reform, budget woes and a constitutional convention. And in the wake of the Iraq crisis, we can add to the list a growing divide among the European Union's major powers over who can speak for Europe and how to shape relations with the United States. As France and Germany moved to oppose Washington on Iraq and wrap themselves in the mantle of Europe in doing so, they elicited an unprecedented backlash to their claim to speak for the European governmental mainstream.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the so-called "Letter of Eight". Issued in response to the Franco-German Elysée Treaty anniversary declaration on Iraq, it was designed first and foremost to counter what these countries saw as a drift towards anti-Americanism. But it was also intended as a warning shot across the bow of Paris and Berlin that the old rules of the game whereby France and Germany could simply meet and issue a statement in the name of Europe were no longer acceptable. If one looks closely at the motives of countries like Italy and Spain and even Poland, they were laying down a marker that they were no longer prepared to have their views and interest ignored by Paris and Berlin, and certainly not on an issue as important as the future of the transatlantic relationship.

To be sure, many French and German commentators downplay the significance of the Letter of Eight as well as the subsequent Letter by the Vilnius 10, as aberrations with few if any longer-term consequences. In private, they suggest that UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is going to lose his gamble on Iraq, Spanish Prime Minister José-Maria Aznar will soon leave office, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is not serious and the Central and Eastern Europeans will become more acquiescent once they realise the price they will pay for their behaviour.

In London and Madrid, one hears the opposite scenario. There the expectation is that Blair will not only end up being proven right on the war in Iraq but that he is prepared to continue the fight and further challenge the Franco-German duopoly by laying down a stronger claim to British leadership in Europe. In private, some British officials suggest that it is time that the role and stature of countries like Italy and Spain as well as the new EU members from Central and Eastern Europe be upgraded to provide a more representative European face to the outside world. This issue is not likely to go away soon, irrespective of the outcome of the Iraq crisis.

Proponents of European integration remain confident that the European Union has seen similar crises before and has always emerged stronger. They believe that these are simply small hiccups on the grand scale of history and that the broader trend is that European integration is all but unstoppable. To Central and Eastern Europeans used to hearing official mantra about success being preordained, such arguments do not necessarily sound reassuring. But leaving that aside, if there is one lesson that should have become clear in recent months, it is that the future health and vitality of the European Union and NATO are inherently and inevitably intertwined. The assumption that if NATO falters the European Union will step in to pick up the slack or take over the mission of security and defence is facile. If anything, the last few months have shown that when NATO is in trouble the European Union usually is as well — and vice versa.

For this reason, any attempt to exploit Washington's unilateralist tendencies to reshape the European Union into a counterweight to the United States is potentially dangerous. While an unholy alliance of US unilateralists and anti-American Europeans may succeed in further damaging the Atlantic Alliance, the consequence is not likely to be a stronger Europe but a more fragmented and weaker one.

A "return to Europe" was one of Central and Eastern Europe's leitmotifs throughout the 1990s, an engine that drove the countries of the region to work so hard to try to catch up with Western Europe. Yet, once again they find themselves about to achieve their dream of joining a key Western institution which they believed would help guarantee their future only to find it divided, dysfunctional in some areas and potentially in crisis. Here, too, they will take their seat at the EU table and be expected to take sides in these contentious discussions from day one.

The instincts of many of these countries will be to side with the United Kingdom — on issues ranging from how Europe should be organised and run to relations across the Atlantic. Central and Eastern Europe views American power and influence as an opportunity to be exploited, not as a problem to be countered. As small and medium-sized countries, their instincts on how Europe should be structured and governed will tend not to be federalist but inter-governmental. Having just joined the European Union, they will be reluctant immediately to embrace far-reaching, integrationist schemes that force them to cede more sovereignty to Brussels. Above all, they will want to maintain an American presence and influence in European affairs. Many of them still want more America in Europe, not less.

Yet these countries will also be careful not to antagonise the two key continental powers, France and Germany, whose political and economic clout they are well aware of. It is one thing to stand up to Paris and Berlin on occasion and on a specific issue. It is quite another to pursue a course that pits them against these two countries across a wider range of issues — especially if their own public opinion is lukewarm, as is the case of Iraq. To be sure, the initial point of departure for Central and Eastern Europeans will be to not want to choose. As in a dysfunctional family, they simply want mother and father to make up, bury their differences and get along again. But life is not always that simple. In reality, they will quickly have to learn to fend for themselves in the rough and tumble of EU politics.

Domestic challenge

The third challenge facing Central and Eastern Europe lies at home. It is the ability of these countries to continue the process of political and economic reform and the rebuilding of their societies started in 1989. To be sure, an extraordinary amount has already been accomplished. Indeed, one of the keys to Central and Eastern Europe's success in the 1990s was its ability to reform further and faster than many in the West believed possible. That said, today one also has a more sober assessment of just how much damage four decades of communism did to the countries and how far behind the West they still lag and are likely to lag for a long time to come.

Moreover, the signs of reform fatigue in societies that have been pushed hard to change over the past decade are everywhere apparent. The results of reform are mixed and the fruits of progress unevenly distributed. Younger Central and Eastern Europeans have job and career prospects that their parents could never have imagined. Yet others have been left behind or have found it hard to adapt to the requirements of a new political and economic system. Widespread corruption undercuts the appeal of capitalism and the uneven benefits of the market economy continue to feed nostalgia for the security of state socialism, at least in some circles.

An initial wave of pro-Western reformist leaders is gradually retiring, many exhausted by the struggles of the past decade. Their successors contain both a younger generation of equally committed reformers as well as populist politicians seeking to exploit the resentment that exists within these societies. For much of the past decade, the pressure to meet the requirements of the European Union exerted an extraordinary discipline on governments to do the right thing, even in the face of popular opposition. And once these countries join the European Union, they will be locked into a set of rules and requirements that will help keep them on track.

At the same time, one cannot help but see certain warning signs of political fragmentation, economic slowdown and, in some cases, nationalist and/or populist temptations. Many if not all of these countries have seen a rapid turnover in ruling governments and the collapse of old and the formation of new political parties. Whether this is simply a reflection of the inevitable sorting out and eventual stabilisation of the political spectrum as some suggest or a sign of longer-term political turbulence and volatility remains to be seen. Economically, one wonders whether the pressures to sustain economic reforms might fall off after these countries succeed in joining the European Union.

Just as Central and Eastern Europeans arrive at their destination in the West, the Western Alliance they have worked so hard to join increasingly appears in disarray

The ability of the governments of these countries to manage this challenge is, of course, not unrelated to the other two challenges discussed above. The stronger these countries are politically and economically at home, the better equipped they will be to play a constructive role in dealing with foreign policy challenges in Europe and across the Atlantic. Similarly, a strong and vibrant European and transatlantic framework helps reinforce and further consolidate progress at home. The 1990s contain many good examples where progress in one area in these countries reinforced and fuelled progress in the other.

But the opposite is also true. The danger today is that the opposite starts to occur, namely that a weakening of performance at home combines with a growing crisis in European and transatlantic structures, thereby creating precisely the wrong dynamic at the wrong time. In recent months, both sides of the Atlantic have behaved in ways that have sent all the wrong signals to the region. The rise of Europhobia in Washington and anti-Americanism in Western Europe can inadvertently validate and legitimate anti-Western and anti-reform forces in these countries as well. While such forces are on the defensive, they are not yet fully destroyed.

Central and Eastern Europeans will have their work cut out in the coming years. In many ways, however, the challenges that lie ahead seem daunting but are no more so than the ones they successfully tackled in the 1990s. And this time Central and Eastern Europeans are in a stronger position to face them for several reasons.

Firstly, Central and Eastern Europe is no longer at the epicentre of the new instability and emerging risks that the West is trying to cope with. If one examines the new threats to transatlantic or European security over the next decade, one cannot help but conclude that cities like Brussels, London and Washington are more at risk than Prague, Sofia, Warsaw or Vilnius. Rather than asking whether Americans, British or French are willing to die for Gdansk, the question may be whether Central and Eastern Europeans will be willing to share the risks of the war on terrorism, radical Islam and weapons of mass destruction in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere.

Secondly, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe will be seated at the key decision-making tables where the decisions affecting future Western security, including their own, will be made. Never again will decisions about them be made without them. The key question is how these countries will use that opportunity and whether they will be up to the challenge of revitalising European integration and transatlantic cooperation.

For a small Central and Eastern European country, taking part in this broader debates over the future of the European Union and NATO will no doubt be daunting. Yet, if there is one lesson from the past decade that can serve as a compass for the future, it is that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are much better off when they proactively take their future into their own hands, when they work together as a region and when they dare to be bold. Although history never repeats itself, one can only hope that over the next decade they will enjoy the same calibre of gutsy leadership they have consistently produced since 1989. We will all be better off if they do.

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