Central Europeans are known for their persistent pessimism. An old Hungarian joke sums it up well: “We know that next year is going to be an average year - because it’s going to be worse than this year, but better than the year after that.” That glass-half-empty mentality was on public display in July 2009, when several senior Central Europeans wrote an open letter to President Obama decrying the lack of engagement from the new U.S. administration. While the tactics of publishing such a letter were ill-considered, the feelings behind it were genuine.
One could be equally dismal about developments in Central and Eastern Europe, with nationalism again bubbling up, corruption hard to shake, the tragic death of many of Poland’s elite in the April plane crash at Katyn and the financial and economic crisis with its toll on vulnerable populations. Yet in the autumn of 2010, there somehow is renewed optimism.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwartzenberg lays out an agenda of political and economic cooperation, ranging from Afghanistan and missile defense to nuclear-energy partnership, outreach to the European Union’s Eastern Partners (Ukraine, Georgia and others) and academic exchanges.
A young and articulate Bulgarian foreign minister, Nikolay Mladenov, arrives in town with a view of strengthening his country’s partnership with the United States in NATO, the Balkans and the Black Sea region.
The Macedonian defense minister, Zoran Konjanovski, outlines his country’s contributions to NATO operations and restates Macedonia’s readiness to join the alliance as soon as the dispute with Greece over the country’s name is resolved.
All this was within in a 24-hour period. It is as though after staying up too late and drinking too much, we have awakened the next morning and realized we still need to get on with things. There is plenty of work to do.
From a U.S. perspective, the agenda with Central Europe can be summarized in four parts. First, there is engagement with these nations on their own terms. We made a mistake in thinking the transition begun in 1989 was complete, as the economic downturn, declining EU solidarity and still-malleable political institutions have exposed continuing challenges. Our ongoing engagement with one another is important to give steady direction to domestic developments in Central European allies.
Second, it is important that the U.S. continue to support Central Europe as embedded in the EU and, within the EU, solidarity between West and East. In the early days of NATO and EU enlargement, the United States led the charge on helping these states integrate fully into European institutions. But in later years, it emerged more as a divisive competition: Did the United States prefer “new Europe” over “old Europe?” Did Western allies insist that Central Europeans choose between the United States and Europe? Such divisions are ultimately destructive. As democratic, market-economy societies that believe in freedom, human rights, the rule of law and common security and prosperity, we are all part of one community. This is why working on missile defense in a NATO context or on outreach to Ukraine and Georgia in parallel with the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative is so important.
Third, we have unfinished business. The project of creating a Europe whole, free and at peace - a gleam in the eye of European-unity architect Jean Monnet, a vision President Reagan had when he called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” a goal formally articulated by President George H.W. Bush and then put on steroids by Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush - has yet to reach all of Europe’s people. Belarus remains an isolated dictatorship left over from the past. We have seen backsliding in the Balkans, the invasion and occupation of breakaway regions in Georgia, tentative reforms in Moldova, a step back from Europe by Ukraine and democratic reversals and pressure on neighbors from Russia. Despite the post-1989 achievement of securing peace and prosperity for more than 100 million more of Europe’s inhabitants, the work is not done and must remain a high priority for the United States and Europe alike.
Fourth, as much work as there is to be done inside Europe, the greatest challenges come from outside: from terrorism and violent extremism; from nuclear proliferation, including in Iran; from regional crises and conflict such as in Afghanistan; from weak and failing states; from a breed of authoritarian capitalism that can change global economics. These are the mega-challenges affecting the United States and Europe as a whole, and as a part of that community, Central Europeans play a critical role in helping shape European policy and making their own contributions.
With such a demanding agenda, we can ill afford complaints and recriminations. It is good to see Washington and Central Europe both putting their shoulders to the wheel.
Kurt Volker is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and works with the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies.