Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Nixon Center and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served as a State Department political appointee during the George W. Bush administration.
President Barack Obama's decision to drop the Bush administration's plans for missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic is unquestionably a major concession to Moscow, whether or not he or Russia's leaders are prepared to admit it. While the move highlights the unhappy geography and tough political choices facing Central European leaders, it could also create an important opportunity to strengthen European security. The administration would do well to use this chance to try to encourage new and different relationships between the former Soviet bloc and Russia.
After the end of the Cold War, the United States embraced Central Europe as the spoils of victory over Communism. America's policy—including bringing many new members into NATO—was driven by a pragmatic (if not always wisely implemented) desire to secure and stabilize the European continent, by the domestic political work of diaspora groups in the United States, and by a degree of moral discomfort at having been unable to prevent Soviet domination or end it sooner.
By and large, the Central Europeans enthusiastically reciprocated these sentiments, seeing a close connection to America as essential protection from Moscow, about which they remained uneasy. Some governments, such as Poland's, energetically courted Washington and went so far as to send troops to Iraq.
Ultimately, however, the close relationship between the United States and Central European governments in the aftermath of the Cold War seems likely to be the exception rather than the rule, an overreaction that will fade over time.
There are several reasons for this, but the fundamental one is that the region was of special interest to America primarily because of the U.S.-Soviet competition in Europe. Without disparaging any of Central Europe's governments or peoples, they were not intrinsically vital to American national interests absent the Cold War rivalry. Despite significant effort on their part in some cases, they contribute comparatively little to the United States in security, economic, or political terms and are likely to receive little from Washington in return. (Poland avidly sought reconstruction contracts in Iraq, for example, and was disappointed.) Moreover, their economic relations are generally stronger with Europe than America, and will probably only continue to intensify further, while trade with America will be limited, relatively speaking. Finally, while people-to-people ties are strong today, the generation that fled Communism to America is disappearing. By contrast, Europe's open borders will lead to deeper ties there as time moves onward.
Notwithstanding the very real difficulties of working with Moscow, the United States has much more at stake in its relationship with Russia, on issues ranging from non-proliferation and arms control to energy security and in places like Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea. Scrapping the Polish interceptors and Czech radar removes one of the most significant irritants in U.S.-Russian relations and makes sense, although it would have made a lot more sense to be certain in advance that Russia would adjust its own policies too—especially on Iran. Hopefully this happened in private.
Committed Atlanticists within the Central European elites—whose friendship Americans should appreciate—sensed the possibility of slow but relentless disengagement from the United States and responded with great anxiety, including in a widely-publicized July open letter signed by former Czech dissident and president Vaclav Havel, former Polish trade union leader and president Lech Walesa, and other top ex-officials from across the region. Pleading for more attention from the Obama administration, the group expressed concern that American officials believe Central Europe has been "fixed" and have "largely stopped worrying about" them. The letter's signatories also feared that the United States and Western Europe could make "the wrong concessions to Russia" (read: missile defense and new security architecture).