Reset, Reassurance and Mutual Recrimination: Obama, the EU and Europe’s East
On October 8, 2010, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung hosted a dinner discussion in cooperation with the Embassy of the United States and the Center for American Progress concerning the future of US policy towards Eastern Europe. This discussion marked the end of a two day conference on the future of the EUs Eastern Neighbours. Participants included members of the Center for American Progress, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, the Embassy of the United States as well as journalists and political scientists from Germany, the United States and Eastern Europe.
During the discussion there was one fact that all participants agreed on: the US policy concerning Russia and Eastern as well as Central Europe has changed significantly under the Obama administration compared to that of the Bush administration. As a reason for a different policy towards Russia it was mentioned that the United States and Russia today share significant common interests. In terms of missile defense, counterterrorism, Afghanistan, climate change and sustainable energy security, America is therefore increasingly looking to engage Russia in order to find common solutions for global security. For the Obama administration fixing bilateral relations with Russia and cooperation with Russia on key challenges are considered priorities.
This new engagement of the United States concerning Russia was met with criticism during the discussion with many participants blaming the Obama administration of leaving aside Eastern and Central Europe. From the US side it was noted however, that the attention the region received in the past was much more a reward of solidarity towards controversial policies made by President Bush than an actual reflection of the importance of the region. Under the Bush administration the region occupied a central place in Official Washington’s imagination. This was largely because the Bush administration went out of its way to publicly champion these countries as poster children for their freedom agenda as they supported policies such as the war in Iraq. The result was that phone calls were promptly returned, visitors to Washington were received at the highest levels, and high ranking US politicians regularly visited the region themselves.
This, however, changed in favor of a focus on rebuilding the relationship with Russia when President Obama came into office in January 2009. Naturally the elites in the region were nervous when Obama became President. He was relatively unknown, he stated his intentions to reverse the policies of his predecessor and therefore it wasn’t surprising that the intent to change the relationship with Russia brought on anxiety in Eastern and Central Europe.However, it was argued, that the Obama administration interpreted the previous attention provided to the region as something that came at the expense of the region’s security since it was automatically linked with a deterioration of the US-Russia relationship. Looking at the region in a global context, Washington decided that it could best contribute to regional security by decreasing tensions with Moscow since hostile relations between the two countries represent the single most destabilizing factor for the security of both Eastern and Central Europe. There was no abandonment of these countries but rather a shift in focus. Thus the only conclusion one can draw is that the improvement of US-Russian relations in itself has been interpreted in the region as a betrayal and that those who complain about it are asking the Obama administration to rekindle the hostility with Moscow. This would in turn mean to recreate a significant threat to the security of Central and Eastern Europe.
Opposed to these arguments from some American participants were European points of view that argued that although it is extremely important to engage Russia, this cannot happen at the expense of the in-between states. Russia’s motives in the international arena are not clear nor is its willingness to modernize on a domestic level. It was pointed out that the main reason for Russia for working with the United States and the EU is a potential Chinese threat. Since the balance of power is shifting globally it means that Russia needs stronger alliances to keep its role as a global power.
In contrast to this, an argument was made that Russia is only so powerful because the United States empowers the country and treats it as superior in comparison to other countries. Considering the treatment of the country under Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice, Russia was never treated as a normal country but went from being treated as a close partner to being treated as an enemy on any given day. Instead of focusing on what Russia wants, the argument went, the country should simply be treated like any other country.
Another participant pointed out that the future of US-Russian relations will naturally be a simultaneous mixture of conflict and cooperation.
While all participant members agreed that there was a shift in the perception of Central and Eastern Europe by the US administration, there was no concluding single interpretation of US policy towards the region.
However it was concluded that while good relations with a functioning Russia are important for everyone - the United States, Russia, the EU and its Eastern neighbours - the United States still has to decide what its strategic role in Europe should be. Will the US engage as they have done over the last decades or will they leave the region largely to the Europeans themselves and focus on other global issues? The treatment of Russia, it was argued, may give a first hint of American intentions in this respect.