America and eastern Europe
Guess who’s coming to dinner?
Apr 8th 2010
Barack Obama tries to fix damaged relations with eastern European allies
THE Obama administration’s closest European allies are oddly tricky to please. An invitation to the leaders of the 11 ex-communist members of NATO to dine with the president in Prague on April 8th was meant to repair a relationship both cherished and moaned about. Instead, indigestion was looming even before the meal was cooked.
It should have gone smoothly. The president is in Prague to sign a new nuclear disarmament agreement with Russia. Even the twitchiest ex-communist countries don’t mind that. The choice of Prague, the capital of a key American ally in the region, over a neutral location such as Geneva, was meant to signal America’s continued commitment to the region’s security. Mr Obama could have simply headed home after the ceremony, or travelled on to a meeting with one big ally. Instead, he chose to invite, admittedly at short notice, all of his ex-communist allies to talk.
The first sign of trouble was that the guest list looked odd. From the three Baltic states, the administration invited the presidents (Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia, Valdis Zatlers of Latvia and Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania). But from most of the other eight countries, it was the prime ministers. Admittedly, lines of responsibility between heads of state and government can be blurred. But the rationale for including the mainly ceremonial Baltic presidents but snubbing the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, who has rather more clout, was mystifying.
While heads were being scratched, Ms Grybauskaite dropped a small bomb. She would not be going to Prague, she said. Her prime minister, Andrius Kubilius, would stand in for her. Explaining her decision, Ms Grybauskaite complained that the dinner would involve “no decision-making”, that it was organised by junior officials, that its outcome was unclear and that she would have only two minutes to talk one-on-one with Mr Obama. Coming from a country roughly one-hundredth America’s size, that showed a startling self-confidence, even by Lithuanian standards.
Next came a remark by a “senior US official” in the New York Times, that the president “will seek to impress upon regional leaders a new attitude toward Russia in which the outmoded fears of Russians hiding under the bed are a thing of the past”. That appeared to confirm the east Europeans’ darkest fears about America’s new cosiness with Russia. Senior officials dealing with the region in the White House and the State Department categorically denied that any such thinking lay behind the dinner.
Clumsiness in American presentation of policy in the region is nothing new. Some Poles are still fuming about the botched announcement of a change in American missile defence plans on September 17th last year. That date, the anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, matters there roughly as much as Pearl Harbour day does in America. The blunder followed a fretful public protest from leading figures in the region, such as Vaclav Havel, about weakening transatlantic ties.
But since then the administration has worked hard to improve things. It has pushed through NATO contingency plans for the Baltic states, the alliance’s most vulnerable members, bringing a spectacular German flip-flop on this previously taboo issue. The new missile defence scheme is bigger and better than the one it ditched. And now the president, on yet another visit to Europe, has invited everyone to dinner.
The lingering difficulties reflect the real problem in the US relationship with central Europe, which is in the ingredients, not the cooking. The days of instinctive Atlanticism in the region are over, as Ms Grybauskaite’s haughty stance, which would once have been inconceivable, demonstrates. The ex-communist allies’ contribution to solving most of America’s problems is marginal, at best. Europe itself is divided and lacks credibility in the eyes of busy Americans. Sorting that out needs hard thinking and a long slog, not just a nice dinner.