The Magazine

Punishing Allies . . .

The view of Obama from Central Europe.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By TOD LINDBERG
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It's fair to say that missile defense has never been as high a priority in Democratic defense policy circles as Republican. It would have taken little to persuade the new administration that the Polish-Czech deployment was unnecessary, while stressing the potential for improved relations with Russia as a result of its cancellation. In making the decision--announced prematurely and clumsily, due to administration concerns about a leak, on the 60th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland--the administration lost sight of or was indifferent to the symbolic aspects of the deployment as a display of U.S. commitment to its allies.

Throughout Europe these days, there are substantial worries about U.S. disengagement. The concern is not confined to Central and Eastern Europe, though it is most acute there. Western European publics are gaga about Obama, whom they regard as the antidote to George W. Bush. Policy-makers see a rather different picture. Obama is happy to accept European adulation and accolades, including a Nobel Prize, but seems less inclined to view Europe as much of a strategic priority or as an especially valuable partner in pursuit of U.S. policy objectives. It's not quite a European sense of abandonment (though that worry seems to get stronger the farther east you go, as I saw at a recent conference in Latvia). Rather, it's the sense of being an object of so-far benign neglect.

True, the United States remains keenly interested in allied commitments to Afghanistan. But not quite to the point of seeming to involve anyone else very much in the months-long deliberations over how to go forward there. Meanwhile, it became shockingly clear following the Georgia conflict that there had been no serious NATO contingency planning for the territorial defense of the new, post-Cold War allies. That would seem like the bare minimum due to all members who have pledged in Article V of their treaty to regard an attack on one as an attack on all--the more so given their participation in the Afghanistan mission.

NATO is currently involved in drafting a new "strategic concept" to guide the alliance in the years to come. Nothing wrong with that, but NATO is currently fighting an actual shooting war against a tenacious set of adversaries in Afghanistan and has yet to develop credible plans for defending all its members. Winning the war you are fighting and making sure you can deliver on the alliance's core promise of collective self-defense are not bad strategic concepts. First things first.

Yet even such basic priorities for the alliance as territorial defense aren't obvious to everyone these days. A show of hands at the recent Halifax International Security Forum, a major pro-NATO gathering of North Americans and Europeans, revealed a number of participants who regard improving relations with Russia as more important than defense planning. Yes, most members seemed to think that you need both, but the point is that there is a detectable inclination among some to conclude that serious defense planning may antagonize Russia and is therefore undesirable. That's the point at which the Russian reset poses basic risks.

Central and Eastern Europeans would like some reassurance about the U.S. security commitment to them. That was the message of a somewhat alarmist but nevertheless compelling July open letter to the Obama administration from more than 20 current and former leaders in the region.

They deserve their reassurance sooner rather than later. It seems likely that Europeans--Eastern, Central, and Western--will assume greater salience in the administration's thinking as reset bets fail to pan out: You can work most constructively with those who are most willing to work constructively with you. That means Europeans and others around the world who share our views on such matters as human rights, free expression, and democratic government.

It may not be the best way to get to the right conclusion, but it seems likely the U.S. government will once again find its voice on democracy and human rights if for no other reason than that Russia, China, Burma, Sudan, and company are unlikely to make it worth our while not to speak up on such matters.

Tod Lindberg, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the editor of Policy Review.