The American approach to Europe in general, and to Central Europe in particular is more ambiguous than meets the eye. Europe was obviously downgraded in American foreign and security policy after the collapse of the communist regimes.1 The new challenges were located elsewhere, especially in the greater Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East. Moreover, the US very soon started to lose its hyperpuissance status (if in reality it ever had it), and a redistribution of power, especially in the economic and political fields, commencing with the rise of countries like China, India or Brazil highlighted the limits of American global power.2 Though the increasingly vast literature on American declinism seems to be partly unfounded, it is nevertheless true that Washington nowadays has to be more circumspect to cast its weight around in the world.3 The extension of the zone of democracy and the creation of a Europe “whole, free and democratic” ended with the admission of most of the East and Central European states in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the American-imposed armistice and peace in the Balkans in 1999. The new century then heralded a period of benevolent neglect in US–Central European relations, while under President Obama the region gradually became a “third-order” concern, though Ukraine has put Central Europe back onto the mental map of Washington policymakers again.
The fundamental question for the US is not in reality Central Europe, but Europe itself. Despite the official statements pledging America to strengthen Europe so that the Old Continent will be able to continue its role as a partner and ally all over the world, the American political elite is divided over the role Europe should play or be allowed to play in supporting American interests. It is also a matter of debate within the American national security community whether the US should promote unity in Europe or prefer bilateral links with individual European countries so as to capitalise on the disproportionate size of the US. If we put the issue into historical context, one of the nightmares of the Americans was – and is – what is commonly called the Gaullist vision of Europe keeping a distance from the US and the Soviet Union (Russia) as well. Dean D. Acheson thought that encouraging European unity was fine but only as long as it was in an Atlantic framework. Henry A. Kissinger criticised John F. Kennedy for encouraging European economic unity and, thus, creating a strong competitor for the US. The President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass declared that “we must disaggregate the European unity by opting for bilateralisation; it is much better to talk to different capitals than to Brussels”. Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence David Gompert suggests that Americans are for European integration as a region but they are not for European integration as an actor.4
Finally, both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine K. Albright, both coming from Central Europe and widely regarded as strong “Europeanists” in Washington, think that “we should be nice to the Europeans … as long as they do not challenge American primacy”.5 In fact, the divide et impera tactics may be discerned in various areas, most prominently in the extremely complex and disputatious talks over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). As arguably Berlin seems to gain most among the Europeans from a transatlantic free trade zone with enhanced export opportunities, the (geo)political fallout of a successful conclusion of the TTIP may strengthen not only the US’s positions in Europe, but also Germany’s already existing relative superiority of power vis-à-vis the fellow EU-members. Such an eventuality must also be considered in the European capitals when they negotiate the deal with Washington.
The United Kingdom’s continuing membership of the EU is bound to have a major impact on the US–European relations on several accounts. The UK is arguably the most committed Atlanticist of the major European countries, though the current value of the stereotypical “special relationship” has been repeatedly questioned recently. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the British position on the most important strategic decisions has always been closer to the Americans’ than that of either France’s or Germany’s. London’s opposition to the creation of a federalist Europe simply meshes with Washington’s basic interest. With a possible “Brexit” however, there would remain no major force to prevent the prevailing of the federalists in Europe; such an outcome may not necessarily serve the interests of some Central European countries either which prefer a “Europe of nations” over a top-heavy and centralised European “superstate”. A potential British departure would also mean the weakening of Atlanticist sentiments within the EU, and the continental Left’s reflexive anti-Americanism could well gain more ground. Another potential loser of a “Brexit” might be France as it would remain alone as a counterbalance to Germany in the EU. And, finally, another potential victim would be the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), because there are only two militaries in the European Union with sizeable expeditionary capability and high-tech armed forces, the British and the French ones.
Arguably the strongest argument against bilateralising US–European relations is that such a policy may play into the hands of the Russians. If a strong Atlantic community is one of Russia’s strategic nightmares, so is an EU–Russia rapprochement for the Americans. In a broader and historical context, arguably the major geopolitical goal of the US is to prevent the emergence of a strong Eurasian competitor which would challenge American positions globally. As much of the fate of Europe is decided in Berlin, and as the Germans have had a sort of special relationship with the Russians (especially under Social Democratic leadership, witness Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik or Gerhard Schröder’s opposition to the war on Iraq), it should not have come as a surprise that the American intelligence community was paying such close attention to the activities in Berlin. The dilemma for Washington is that Europe is badly needed by the US as a (junior) partner in propping up its global dominance, but it should not be strong enough in any field to challenge American hegemonic positions. The EU’s economy is roughly the same size as the US’s, and the euro may potentially be a competitor to the US dollar in the international money market. On the other hand, Europe is weak in military matters and still relies on US security guarantees. One may wonder whether Washington sometimes overvalues and overemphasises the Russian threat to make sure that the Europeans fall into line in cases of differences of opinion in security matters; in other words: it replaces the Soviet Union with Russia as an external balancer – as “the other”. (At the same time, Washington at times questions the credibility of the East and Central European states for being too “alarmist” about Russian threats.6 The Central Europeans may be playing a similar game; this time the name of the game is to attract more US attention – and resources – into the region.) The Americans do not have to worry too much about a European defence and security policy which is too independent from Washington’s, although they welcome European allies’ efforts at meeting the security challenges in Europe’s neighbourhood, especially if the actions do not threaten a potential creeping American commitment later on. One of the major reasons for the wide gap between the American and the European defence capabilities is that the aggregate European defence spending has been consistently much lower than the American practically since the conclusion of the Second World War, and given the state of the EU there is not much chance that the governments will be able to or dare increase their defence spending substantially. One also suspects that Washington is not quite unhappy with this situation and is ready to absorb the extra costs which the ultimate defence of Europe calls for: it perpetuates America’s status as a “European power” and improves its bargaining position vis-à-vis Brussels immensely.
If Europe is a kind of playground for the Americans and the Russians (as it was during the Cold War), East and Central Europe is even more so. If Ukraine constitutes a vital interest for Russia, it is also important for the US as well – even if not to such an extent as to Russia. A Eurasian Union without Ukraine would definitely be a much weaker player on the international stage than one incorporating Ukraine with its large deposits of minerals, prime agricultural areas as well as the strategic depth Kiev might provide to the core country of the Union, that is Russia. Washington has to walk a fine line here, though: a Russia rebuffed and humiliated by the West might establish closer relations with China, and such an outcome would have detrimental consequences to the US in its “competitive partnership” with China, especially in the Pacific region, where Beijing might concentrate more resources if it does not have to cover its “back” towards Russia. In sum: Washington has to move very carefully and find a middle course between weakening Russian positions so that Moscow would not be able to effectively thwart American interests globally and regionally; but, on the other hand, America has to avoid pushing Moscow too close to the Chinese. The Shanghai Security Organisation (SCO) or the BRICS’s Development Bank (New Development Bank, NDB) have not lived up yet to their founders’ original expectations in creating strong alternatives and competitors to the Atlantic community’s integrationist organisations, but they may potentially pose a threat to them in the medium and long term.
In the light of these global American dilemmas, it is easier to understand Washington’s sensitivity about any real or perceived rocking of the Atlantic community’s boat by any EU and/or NATO country. Central Europe may not be in the centre of global politics and great power contest, but it can make life a bit easier or a bit more difficult for the decision-makers in Washington. It also explains the – at times – disproportionately forceful reactions to anything that is seen as potentially improving the international standing of its competitors, or anything that might be conceived as a precedent. The displeasure of the US can take a wide variety of forms from the tightening of the monetary screw (through the IMF, the World Bank, global investors, the credit agencies, etc.) to “soft” areas, although the Americans’ soft power is declining because of, among others, the widespread use of double standards, or placing themselves above international law in questions such as the sovereignty of other nations or the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC); in short, the impression is that American foreign policy especially towards smaller nations is guided by the “might makes right” principle. At the same time, by playing up the unquestionable Russian security threat to the Central Europeans, Washington is trying to create a pro-American bloc in the region – not without success if we remember the so-called Letter of Eight and the Vilnius Ten on the eve of the war on Iraq in early 2003. The more or less strongly pro-American East and Central Europeans (at least when compared to many West European countries) may not be game-changers for the US, but they can provide useful services to America – which is what the Washington political elite increasingly expects. (“Don’t ask what America can do for you, ask what you can do for America” – was basically the message Vice President Biden delivered at NATO’s Bucharest Summit in April 2008.) These countries provided much needed political and diplomatic cover for the Bush Administration in 2003, and even risked confrontation with some of the most influential countries in Europe for the sake of expressing their loyalty to the Atlantic community. They also contributed to the efforts to bring about some degree of stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, though admittedly they were playing only a marginal role. Their most important function from an American (and European) point of view is bringing stability to the Balkans and facilitating the region’s integration into the Atlantic community. Central Europe’s “64,000 dollar question” is how to be loyal to the US, and contribute to the unity and coherence of the Atlantic community and the EU, while not going against German interests, and at the same time maintaining a balanced relationship based on mutual interests with Russia.
Washington’s expectations are not particularly high or demanding – the years of “benevolent neglect” followed the admission of the Central European countries into NATO. In fact, this indifference may have signalled the return of Realpolitik under the Obama administration until very recently. The “reset” with Russia7 raised the spectre of an American–Russian understanding over the heads of the Central Europeans again. The cancellation of the elements of the missile defence system planned to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic did not go down well either in the region, though in fact the ground-based system proposed by the Bush Administration was only replaced with a phased one.8 In reality, these incidents enhanced the feeling of insecurity among Central Europeans, and the behaviour of some of the European powers only reinforced this perception.9 The angry and paternalising words of Jacques Chirac at a time when the Central and East Europeans threw their support behind the Americans on the eve of the war on Iraq in 2003 have not really been forgotten in the respective capitals (“They missed an opportunity to shut up.”). The Central Europeans are expected by Washington to project and support stability, market economy and parliamentary democracy in their neighbourhood, especially in the Balkans from Moldova to Serbia and Kosovo. They are to endorse Turkey’s EU membership, which is vigorously pushed by Washington (and opposed more or less openly by France and Germany). The growing Russian–Turkish understanding may even make this push stronger, otherwise Ankara may be “lost” at least partly to the West.
Energy is one of the strategic sectors that has immense indirect influence on the geopolitical position of Central Europe. The region desperately needs to diversify its supply (and distribution in a lesser degree), and Turkey may become one of the most important transit routes for energy flow from Central Asia to (Central) Europe. Despite the fact that we are living in the age of the “n” technological revolution, energy supply and distribution are still one of the central questions in the contest between the great powers and the survival and well- being of all countries in the world. So far (Central) Europe’s vulnerability has been largely exploited by Russia. The “energy weapon” or the threat to use it has been deployed several times in the past few years, primarily against the most vulnerable countries of Europe in this respect, the Central European ones. As it was already referred to, the construction of Nord Stream between Germany and Russia contributed to the exposed position of the countries in between in this field. The scrapping of the Nabucco pipeline plan has also extended Russian clout in the energy supply. The South Stream, which would have transported Russian gas to Europe by bypassing Ukraine, has likewise been discarded. The emerging undeclared energy “war” between the US and its allies in the Gulf region on one hand, and Russia on the other one, is in full swing, and the latter seems to be in a losing position – in the medium and long terms. The enhanced production by the oil- and gas-rich countries, especially in the Middle East may not be only for the short-term, and when the prospective American shale gas appears in bulk in the world energy market, Russia will find itself in a very precarious situation as its economic life (with the concomitant political and social stability) depends on energy exports to an extremely large extent. If Europe becomes less dependent on Russian energy supplies, Moscow’s influence in Europe, especially in Central Europe, will be diminished. (China may as well turn out to be a tar baby as an alternative large-scale market for Russia: Moscow would be the supplicant in the Chinese–Russian relations, in which even now the Russians seem to be a junior partner. In geopolitical terms, Russia is more exposed to Chinese attempts to enhance their sphere of influence at the expense of Moscow than to similar European or American endeavours.) Nevertheless, Russia’s leaders are enjoying a window of opportunity in using their energy policies in the short run in countries which need to secure their energy supply in order to support their economic growth. Their strategic interest seems to be a relatively short term contract with the Russian suppliers in the hope that the integrated European energy network will be expanded in the coming years and the appearance of American shale gas on the market will create stiffer competition in this commodity for the benefit of the consumers. It will mesh with the overall American strategy of preventing an intimate EU–Russia relationship and a more integrated and competitive Atlantic community. If the US is able to edge out Russia, at least partly, from the energy market in Europe, then Washington will be gaining another vital foothold here: besides providing conventional security through NATO, it will become a major, though not exclusive player in energy security too. Such a scenario would give an answer to a number of strategic decisions in Central Europe, and would doubtless facilitate the lingering strategic choices in the region.
1 In reality, the Europeans’ attitude towards America is equally ambiguous. The very idea of a European Union, especially a federal one, has an underlying meaning of balancing the US – at least for the European Left – in such key countries as, for instance, France and Germany. The decline of Atlanticism owing to certain heavy-handed US policies in the greater Middle East or the monitoring scandal has become more pronounced in the past few years. Candidate Obama inspired (largely unfounded great) hopes, but President Obama has failed to deliver in a number of issues which are high on the list of priorities for most of the Europeans. See, for example, “The Ties That Bind: US– Central European Relations 25 Years After the Transition”. CEPA, November 2013, p. 8.
2 One frequently overlooked fact with regard to the hegemonic role of the US in the world is that some of the domestic factors which have been making this role possible are weakening in absolute sense and relative to some challengers’ capabilities. Thus, for instance, the US would need a similarly ambitious modernisation of its crumbling infrastructure (freeways, airports, railroad lines, etc.) as was implemented in the 1950s; public opinion is less and less willing to support costly foreign undertakings (less so armed interventions); and the changing composition of the American population may also bring about shifts in the priorities of US foreign and security policies.
3 Tomáš Valášek gives voice to many an observer by saying that “… limits on American power are new, fundamental and permanent” because of globalisation and the rise of other powers. Building New Normal US–Central European Relations 2010–2020. CEPA, May 2011. “Toward a New US–Central European Policy Roadmap? Central Europe and Obama: Is the Special Relationship Over?”, p. 24.
4 It’s worth mentioning that Russian President Vladimir Putin likewise seems to believe that Europe is not a “country” but a collection of disparate political entities. See Walter Russell Mead: “Putin’s World”. The American Interest, 27 January 2015.
5 Cited by Pierre Hassner in “New Geopolitics of Central and Eastern Europe. Between the EU and the US”. Stefan Batory Foundation; Warsaw 2005, pp. 75, 76, 102.
6 “Navigating Uncertainty: US–Central European Relations, 2012”, p. 86.
7 The “reset” may have erred on two accounts: one, it may have misinterpreted Russia’s grand strategy of globally “soft-balancing” the US, that is, it is not in the interest of the Kremlin to alleviate the burdens on Washington. Two, the Obama administration may as well have overrated the extent of Russian influence in certain countries, foremost among them in Iran.
8 The decision was apparently made in Washington without previously consulting either the Czechs or the Poles, while both governments, especially the former one, had spent a considerable sum of political capital to have the deployment of the MD-elements accepted by the public opinion. Adding insult to injury, the cancellation was announced on 17 September 2009, on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland.
9 As Ivan Krastev put it: “… when it comes to important decisions, Schröder and Chirac are going to invite Putin, but they are not going to invite their European allies”. “New Geopolitics of Central and East Europe”, p. 112.