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The Ties That Bind?

The shifting sands in Washington’s relationship with Russia and the EU are calling for Central Europe to reevaluate its partnership with the U.S., too.

by Martin Ehl 31 May 2018

Some may call it a strategic dilemma. Others a civilizational choice. No matter how you name it, the topic is up in the air: Central Europe needs to redefine its relationship with the United States.


Slovakia happens to be one of the places where the need is most pressing, since the country must decide this year about purchasing new supersonic fighter planes. There are essentially three choices: modernize the existing Russian fleet; buy Swedish-made Gripens and cooperate with the neighboring Czechs and Hungarians, who already have them, and create, for example, a common maintenance center to cut costs; or buy old, but modernized versions of American F-16 planes, and thus follow in the footsteps of Poland.


It now seems that the Americans are the most popular choice, according to the murmurs of many experts present at a recent Globsec security conference in Bratislava. The reasoning is that the old F-16s would, yes, be much more expensive than the smaller, less robust Gripens, and perhaps an unnecessary luxury. But the purchase would reaffirm Slovakia’s commitment to strong relations with Washington. And the U.S. State Department has already pre-approved the sale of 14 American fighters.  


Compared to Slovakia, Poland does not face a decision on where to place its allegiances, and is already building ties to the U.S. that are as close as possible. Recently leaked material, published by the news site, shows that the Polish Ministry of Defense offered Washington both a location and infrastructure worth $2 billion (1.7 billion euro) in exchange for stationing a permanent U.S. armored brigade on its territory – all of that evidently without consulting the Foreign Ministry or the presidential office.


These developments come at a time when all of Europe has been trying to figure out how to cope with a United States led by an unpredictable president whose commitment to common problems – including security – is doubtful. Suspect are also Trump’s ties to Russia, considered public enemy number one in Central Europe – at least by those who want to preserve the region within the family of Western democracies. In this sense, the Slovak purchase of F-16s would be a much better choice than the prolongation of the Russian MiG-23 contract. And a permanent U.S. base in Poland might be the best security guarantee.


Distant History


The ties that Central Europeans had to the U.S. were always considered different than those to Western Europe. To many countries, the road to independence 100 years ago came through Woodrow Wilson's determination at the end of World War I to carve out new countries from the ruins of the Habsburg Empire. The American role is part of the centenary celebrations being held this year throughout the region. But that history is apparently more a matter of school textbooks than a major influence on actual public opinion. In Poland, for example, an annual poll by the CBOS agency showed that, after Czechs, Americans are the foreigners seen in the most positive light. But it is worth noting that their popularity has declined by 11 percent since last year’s survey.


More recently, the victory of the United States over the Soviet Union in the Cold War allowed the countries in the region to renew or regain independence as a first step, and then achieve NATO membership – in 1999 or a bit later for others, in 2004 – as a basic security guarantee. Together with American soft power such as Hollywood movies, generous grants, and thousands of English-language teachers, this has created a different, less critical relationship between the two sides. That doesn’t mean such ties aren’t put to the test from time to time, such as during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s or the Iraq campaign in 2003, when then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously distinguished between “old” and “new” Europe when answering a question about the backing of U.S. allies.


But the days of neglecting Europe under former U.S. President Barack Obama are long gone, compounded by the shifts in global politics and by growing Russian influence, especially via the Kremlin's non-military strategy on how to “regain” Central Europe. The current Polish conservative government, with its “Euro-wary if not Euro-pessimistic” approach, is the only one that looks at Washington almost uncritically, even in Trump's times.


The Trump administration is, ironically, the one bringing back U.S. interest to transatlantic relations and to Central Europe. There are demands for increased spending and additional troops for the region, and more sanctions have been approved against Russia, as Ian Brzezinski, an expert from the American Atlantic Council, pointed out at one of the debates during the Globsec conference.


Washington sometimes seems more understanding toward Central European security fears than its Western European partners. For example, the U.S. is lobbying against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which Central European countries object to as well. “Nord Stream 2 makes Europe more vulnerable in [terms of] energy supplies,” stressed U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell during a recent visit to Slovakia.


But on the other hand, Trump is pushing Europe toward a trade war where Central Europe also has a stake. For example, a potential 25 percent duty on imported European cars would heavily affect the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, because these countries, where numerous car factories are located, now form “Europe’s Detroit.”


The eminent U.S. foreign policy expert Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” has advised Europe to be more self-confident, not only in dealing with the U.S., but in general. “The European Union has a lot of influence and soft power,” Nye said at the Globsec conference.


That’s nice to say, but hard to put into political practice in our times when Europeans work hard to reach their own compromises within the EU, and when any tweet from Donald Trump could spark a deep international crisis.


A century after the United States provided critical help to create a new family of nation states in Central Europe, the ties between these two parts of the world are stretched to the limits – with Russia, the common enemy, being the ultimate unifier for both.


Common ideals of liberty and freedom are being lost in the cacophony, or, we could say, this new world disorder. It is a novel situation in which Europeans should, step by step, learn how to live without American security guarantees in the future.


For Central Europe that would mean a revolution.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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