The Future of U.S. Policy in Central Europe

15. 3. 2017

Active American strategic engagement ensured the success of Central Europe’s post-1989 democratic order where those of 1919 and 1946 failed. But the combined effects of economic austerity, strategic rebalancing and European renationalization are eroding America’s essential strategic role in the region. The 25th anniversary of Communism’s end offers an opportunity for America to renew its strategic bargain with Central Europe for the 21st Century.

As of next year, the post-1989 democratic order in Central Europe will have lasted 25 years— five years longer than the independent republics of the Interwar period. With a combined GDP of $1.2 Trillion, a quarter-century of peaceful political transfers of power, and the absence of an active military threat, the nations inhabiting the 1,000-mile corridor between the Baltic and Black Seas that Sir Harold Mackinder once called the “shatterbelt” of Europe are more prosperous, secure and free than at any point in their history. Not since the 17th Century has Poland held the position of power and influence that it has in contemporary European politics. Not since the turn of the last century have the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire enjoyed the geopolitical safety, open borders and economic growth that they do in the European Union.

Viewed from this perspective, the post- Cold War “project” in Central Europe has been a success. To a greater extent than any of the region’s previous geopolitical configurations, the Western liberal order has provided stability and freedom to a group of nations who have occasionally enjoyed the former, seldom the latter but almost never both. If there is one place where Francis Fukuyama’s much-challenged “End of History” argument would seem to hold true, it is Central Europe. This success was the result of many factors—courageous post-Communist leaders like Václav Havel and Leszek Balcerowicz who were committed to anchoring their nations’ political and economic destinies to the West; an EU whose member states were willing to invest vast sums of money and political capital in the risky effort to rebuild entire societies; and an unusually permissive international strategic environment that allowed these forces of reconstruction to work without the catastrophic interruptions, which have so often short-circuited Central Europe’s most promising historical moments in the past.

But one factor was also present without which all the others, however important, would have been insufficient: the United States. Though easy to forget in an era of EU subsidies, it was the proactive, purposeful, unconditional engagement of America that allowed the post-1989 order to succeed where previous attempts at regional stability and democracy had failed. But two and a half decades later, it is not clear if the United States still wishes to play a strong role in Central Europe. Confronted with rising powers and constrained budgets, America appears to be rethinking its vocation as a European Power. Increasingly, it lacks the policy direction, political relationships, or strategic vision that made past U.S. engagement in this part of the world a success. Coming at a moment of mounting political and economic entropy in Europe itself, U.S. strategic drift is part of a duel crisis that could lead to an unraveling of many of the gains of the post-1989 moment and the emergence of a regional order that is very different from what Americans and Europeans jointly set out to build in the 1990s.

Third Time’s a Charm

To understand why the present configuration in Central Europe is so successful we have to remember what went wrong here in the past. 1989 was not America’s first foray into Central European geopolitics, but the third in a series of three great global reordering ‘moments’ that began in the space between the Baltic and Black Seas. On two previous occasions—1919 and 1946—the United States played midwife to regional orders that failed to stand the test of time. On both occasions, America’s entry into European politics was prompted by wars that began in Central Europe and ended with postwar settlements to solve the problems of this region that overflowed into global geopolitics. Both times, the United States got it wrong in Central Europe—in 1919 by creating high-minded but defenseless and nationalistic states that invited predation from stronger neighbors and led to the Second World War; in 1946 by consigning former democratic protégés to the orbit of an authoritarian competitor.

The first U.S. interlude in the region brought freedom without stability; the second brought stability without freedom. The historic achievement of the post-1989 order has been that it provided a durable basis for both freedom and stability in Central Europe for the first time in its history. The key to success lay in the willingness of U.S. policymakers to apply three lessons America learned from its past failures in the region. Respectively, these three lessons would form the ingredients in the post-1989 strategy for a “Europe Whole, Free and at Peace” and are worth remembering as the region’s democracies turn twenty-five.

Lesson 1: America must keep “skin in the game.”

American withdrawal from Europe was the “original sin” of 20th Century geopolitics. The two world wars showed that the traditional European balance of power is a firetrap wired to ignite in the continent’s center and east. Yet both times America failed or was unable to stay engaged here after the war ended. In 1919, America’s abrupt departure following the creation of Central Europe’s fragile nation-states under Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points led the Germans to joke that Czechoslovakia and its neighbors were “Saisonstaats”—perennial flowers that would last for a season but perish. America’s irreplaceable role in the preservation of these states was underscored by quick death of the series of overlapping regional alliances, underwritten by France, that had been erected in America’s absence as a kind of First NATO. Similarly, it was U.S. withdrawal as much as Stalin’s armored divisions that doomed the ersatz democracies of 1945–6. Avoiding this “original sin” of 20th Century U.S. policy in Central Europe was a conscious aim of U.S. policymakers after 1989. Though forgotten today, the impulse to expand NATO ran into stiff opposition from the capitals of Western Europe, which saw security pledges to weak frontier states as a liability and preferred a finlandized Middle Zone. But America had learned through hard experience a central truth of European geopolitics: only when the Central European security vacuum is permanently sealed can the stability of Europe as a whole be ensured.

Lesson 2: Nationalism is as much a threat to Central Europe as outside powers.

Both of the 20th Century’s world wars began in part because of Central European nationalism. It is irony of U.S. foreign policy that, after the First World War, America discovered nationalism as a solution to supranationalism (especially for the nations of the Habsburg Empire), only to return after the Second World War and rediscover supranationalism as a solution to nationalism. The 1919 postwar settlement encouraged self-determination without anchoring the resulting nationalism to Western democratic norms; the 1946 arrangement denied self-determination while allowing Soviet exploitation of regional nationalisms as a means of imperial governance. The post-1989 resolved the problem of the Central European nation-state by linking America’s fulfillment of the region’s security needs to democratic outcomes and subsuming the nationalist impulse in the economic and political structures of Europe. America promoted EU integration (initially against European wishes) not only as a geostrategic imperative for Central Europe but one that was compatible with regional Atlanticism. Irrespective of the philosophical merits of integration, its geopolitical importance for the United States has been to act as a mediating mechanism that draws out the toxins of regional ethno-nationalism and makes the Central European nation-state safe for itself—and for Europe.

Lesson 3: Central Europe is as much an “Idea” as a region.

Finally, post-Cold War policymakers recognized that the deficiencies in past U.S. policy in Central Europe had not only been military or institutional, but ‘spiritual’: the absence of an animating Idea capable of permanently cementing Western interests and values to those of the region’s democracies in pursuit of a broader purpose. As early as the 1930s, American intellectuals in Prague had seen the potential for the democracy agenda to provide the foundation for a common policy agenda between the United States and the smaller nations of Europe. In many ways, the very concept of “Central Europe” in its modern form reflects a confluence of the ideas of regional dissidents like Milan Kundera and American strategic thinkers imagining an alternative future for the region other than German or Russian domination. The Idea of Central Europe rejects geography as destiny and sees moral purpose rather than geopolitics as guiding the future fate of the region—the antithesis, in other words, of the German concept of Mitteleuropa. Unlike in previous eras, this shared idea has linked American and Central European states in the period since 1989 in pursuit of a common agenda of consolidating democracy not only in this region but also in remaining captive nations further East and around the world.

The Great Unraveling

America got it right in 1989 because U.S. policymakers and their Central European and later Western European counterparts were cognizant of these lessons and incorporated them into policy. The result was the strategic concept of a “Europe Whole, Free and at Peace” that would remain the organizing template for U.S. and European policy in the region for more than two decades. Each of the three components of this strategy—institutional (EU), ideological (democracy) and military (NATO)—are direct outgrowths of the lessons above. Using this framework, Western leaders effectively solved the Central European “problem” in both its geopolitical and nationalist forms for the first time in history, creating the conditions for an economic and political revolution that brought 100 million people into the West.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, all three ingredients of the post-1989 orders are in varying states of crisis; only today, unlike in 1989, 1946 or 1919, there is not the end of a war to alert us to that fact. Consumed with problems at home, a new generation of leaders seems to assume that the building blocks of the Euro-Atlantic order that their predecessors built are more or less immutable, and that they can therefore devote their energies to economic and social problems without worrying about sustaining the larger edifice they inherited. This is not a safe assumption. In each of the three areas above, new trends are emerging in both the United States and Europe that could erode the foundations of the post-1989 success story.

American Retrenchment

Long before the economic crisis of 2008, U.S. policymakers had begun to view Europe in general and Central Europe in particular as a“checked box.” Under the Obama Administration, the de facto retrenchment of U.S. power from Europe has accelerated. This is partly due to the combined effect of austerity, strategic challenges in Asia and the steady hollowing-out of NATO as a military alliance. But the deeper problem is the lack of U.S. political will to invest in Europe strategically. U.S. policy in Europe is increasingly marked by a combination of strategic drift and day-to-day crisis management, with little in the way of a discernible substantive vision for the relationship. In Central Europe, this void is widely perceived. A string of recent U.S. decisions—the withdrawal of two BCTs, cancellation of the fourth phase of EPAA and low troop commitments for the fall 2013 Steadfast Jazz exercises—have reinforced the perception that U.S. strategic attention is ebbing away from Europe. Though obviously not similar in scale to prior 20th Century U.S. retrenchments, the current trend is toward less of an onshore presence for the United States in Europe and therefore less of the stabilizing role along the eastern frontier that was an integral ingredient in the post-1989 strategy.

Renationalization of Europe

At the same time that the American military and moral presence in Europe is weakening, the European federative mechanisms that were supposed to tamp down nationalism are in a state of deep crisis. The eurozone sovereign debt and banking crises revealed serious design flaws in European economic governance structures that, together with persistent imbalances between the EU’s Northern and Southern economies, threaten to make the eurozone an engine of recurring economic instability. In some Central European states, worsening economic conditions have fueled a resurgence of nationalist politics reminiscent of the interwar period. International attention has gravitated to the populist anti-EU rhetoric and centralizing policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, but the latest international indexes also show lagging performance on key benchmarks of democracy in several other Central European states, particularly Romania and Bulgaria. The crisis of democracy in these states is similar to the effects of the eurozone crisis in many Western European countries, but with distinctive post-authoritarian accents. Regionwide, the democracies of 1989 have struggled to develop the culture of compromise that is the hallmark of stable democracy, while showing a pronounced tendency toward the ‘politics of revenge.’ The success of populist parties is rooted not only in elite attempts to capture nationalist impulses laid bare by the economic crisis, but the widescale public perception that the post-1989 constitutional order was flawed in important regards.

Weakening of the Central European “Idea”

The receding of U.S. power in Central Europe and reemergence of has also gone hand-inhand with a slackening in the shared sense of historical experience and purpose that animated regional leaders in the first two decades after Communism. This is partly due to the passing of the Havel generation of leaders and the shift in focus toward issues of economic convergence, as well as disillusionment following the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences. But it is also rooted in the lack of a unifying strategic vision of virtually any kind around which America and Central Europe might rally. Despite promising ventures like the Polish-inspired European Endowment for Democracy—which, along with the Eastern Partnership program (EaP), is one of the few examples in which a Central European priority has become an EU-wide priority—the general tendency has been toward a submergence of regional political and economic ideals into the Western European mainstream. It is hard to imagine current European leaders evoking the memory of Wilson, Masaryk and Reagan in pursuit of a joint policy toward societies close at hand like Ukraine and Belarus, much less in Egypt or Burma. Nor do young Central Europeans seem to have much interest in translating their countries’ hard-won reputation for scrutinizing power and resisting centralization into an ethos of reform at, as opposed to merely technocratic compliance with, the structures of the EU. This reflects a fading of the ‘Idea’ of Central Europe in European politics. In its place, the tendency is increasingly toward an EU-oriented but complacent mindset that has substituted EU convergence and coming to terms with German commercial preponderance for the liberalizing reform mission as regional societies’ main preoccupation—less ‘Central Europe,’ in other words, and more Mitteleuropa.

In short, all three of the main components of the post-1989 democratic order in Central Europe are in jeopardy. Collectively, the problems above represent a simultaneous stalling of both the Atlanticist and Europeanist paradigms that U.S. policymakers envisioned for Central Europe. While the region’s transition has been an unmistakable success in many ways, in others it is still a work in progress. Rather than a group of consolidated democracies firmly embedded in a successful EU with backing from a reliable NATO, Central Europe runs the risk of again becoming a kind of a Middle Zone in European politics—a cluster of small and mid-sized powers with varying degrees of successful integration with the West wedged between a German-led fiscal core and a Russian-dominated zone of corruption and authoritarianism. This is not the nightmare that the region faced in previous eras, but nor is it a fulfillment of the vision that post- Communist leaders had in mind in their efforts to build a “Europe Whole, Free and at Peace.”

Slowing the Erosion

For the foreseeable future, Americans and Europeans are likely to remain engrossed in the economic and political crises that confront their societies. During this period, the temptation to retrench—for America, from its vocation as a European Power; for Central Europeans, from their vocation as democracies and global role models for reform—will be high. For both, the danger is that the unexpected combination of Western introversion, weakening institutional “glue” of NATO and the EU, and resurfacing of the problems of the nation-state will imperceptibly erode integral components of the post-1989 democratic order before their work has been completed.

This is problem of generational scope that cannot be papered over by attempting to pursue a grand project of the kind that drove cooperation in the past. The 25th anniversary of the end of Communism will provide an inflection point for considering where the post-1989 formula has succeeded, where work it is incomplete, and where it needs to evolve to fit the exigencies of a new era. Western policymakers should use the current period wisely, as a strategic interlude in which to achieve re-consolidation where possible while slowing the erosion of relationship fundamentals and building up political capital for when their societies are ready to return to larger joint undertakings. For the United States, the key at the moment is to not go so far with strategic retrenchment that it loses influence in regional politics and faces a high cost of strategic re-entry in region. There are a number of steps America can take to regain lost ground in the region.

Encourage regional collaboration

With the EU and NATO in crisis, the United States should encourage the indigenous groupings that are springing up between the Baltic and Black Seas as backup mechanisms for anchoring Central European countries with the West. The United States should seek to actively encourage the activities of the Visegrád Group, Nordic-Baltic Group, Central European Initiative and Black Sea Synergy Group, while encouraging linkages between them (a prime role for an outside power) and encouraging them to widen their agendas where practicable beyond the security realm to deeper cooperation in energy, regional democracy and commercial infrastructure. Fostering a practical bridge between the V4 and Nordic- Baltic is especially important and overdue, as it would bring together ten of Europe’s most militarily capable and economically vibrant Atlanticist states. Among the tools for strengthening these groupings might include the designation of senior U.S. representatives to attend Group ministerials and dispersing U.S. military and other aid in bloc allotments (the same technique America used to encourage European integration). Building up these groups would provide practical outlets for bypassing stalled institutions and keeping America strategically engaged without undermining the EU and NATO.

Strengthen technological and industrial cooperation

Historically, U.S. commercial investment in this region has acted as a quiet reinforcing mechanism to the strategic goal of strengthening regional security and democracy. One opportunity to strengthen U.S. economic and strategic relations with the region simultaneously that is presently under-exploited is in strategic industries like defense and energy, where win-win opportunities are being impeded and regional frustrations stoked by arcane trade controls and under-spirited commercial diplomacy. The United States should revise the Defense Trade Control System to reduce the obstacles that Central European states face in attempting to buy U.S. products. In energy, Washington should work to better promote alternatives to over-reliance on Russian sources while walking Central European countries through the process of licensing agreements with private North American suppliers that is currently slowing North American LNG from flowing to Central European consumers.

Re-earn the right to criticize on democracy.

The United States should re-engage in the effort to strengthen Central European democratic institutions. This will be difficult to achieve, as American credibility is in short supply due to perceptions of U.S. strategic disengagement and the chaotic and gridlocked state of democracy in the United States. American interventions in Central European politics can easily backfire and strengthen radical elements in regional societies. Ultimately, U.S. policymakers should recognize that they have a responsibility alongside the EU to continue encouraging regional states on the right path, but that their effectiveness in doing so is inextricably linked to the overall level of strategic commitment that regional societies and elites perceive the United States to have in their region, which is now at an all-time low. To be heard on democracy, U.S. leaders must be personally invested in the region, and currently they are not. Certainly, any effort to take the bully pulpit at a time when the United States is perceived as fickle and uncommitted in the strategic realm will not work. Except in cases of egregious abuses of human rights or outright authoritarianism, U.S. criticism should be delivered in the spirit of last summer’s intervention in Romania—quietly, with a sense of humility that acknowledges America’s diminished role and with a conscious delinking of the political and security agendas. Meanwhile, the United States should work to rebuild the credibility that led Central Europeans to see it as a source of moral authority so that, when it counts, America can criticize and be heard.

Rekindle the Central European “Idea”

The path to rebuilding lost credibility is through personal investment. As the 25th anniversary of the end of Communism approaches, the United States and Central Europe should look for ways to mark the occasion, not only with celebrations but with reflections on the unfinished business of the post-1989 moment. President Obama should travel to Warsaw in June 2014 to commemorate the anniversary of the first free elections. In addition, he should consider reconvening the group of Central European leaders he met for dinner on the eve of the Prague nuclear summit as an annual forum for discussing regional concerns and the state of global democracy. After all, if China imploded in revolution tomorrow, it would be Central European democracies, to a greater degree than any other nation— including the United States—that would possess the unique experience and credibility to help guide it on the path to sustainable democracy. U.S. and regional leaders alike should reflect on what prevented the West from utilizing Central Europe’s experiences more effectively during the Arab Spring. While not going in search of dragons to slay, we also should not let fallout from the Iraq War experience or constraints of the eurozone crisis create the impression that Central Europe has a lessened responsibility to model its successful transition for the world in the Century ahead.


It is not an exaggeration to say that the success of democracy in Central Europe represents the greatest non-military civilizational accomplishment (one with many fathers, to be sure) in the history of U.S. foreign policy. While Central Europe does not hold the importance in 21st Century global geopolitics that it did in previous decades, the history of the 20th Century is a reminder that achieving geopolitical pluralism, political freedom and economic prosperity in the Baltic-to-Black corridor is a pre-requisite to the stability of Western Eurasia that allows the United States to be an effective global power. Reflecting on past lessons in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of 1989 should lead today’s Americans and Central Europeans to consider what made their past work together succeed and where they have unfinished business in preparation for the day when the history returns.

A.Wess Mitchell

A.Wess Mitchell is President of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a Washington, DC based foreign policy institute dedicated to the study of Central Europe.

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