289. America's New Friends in the East: Does EU and NATO Expansion Promise to Re-energize the Transatlantic Alliance?

By
Robin Shepherd

Robin Shepherd is currently a WWICS Public Policy Scholar. Most recently, he was Moscow Bureau Chief of The Times of London. The following is an abbreviated version of a presentation given by the author at an EES noon discussion on December 18, 2003. Meeting Report 289.

When France and Germany announce their nominations for "Man of the Year 2003" it is a safe bet that Donald Rumsfeld will not make the shortlist. The US Defense Secretary's pointed reference to the Franco-German axis against the war in Iraq as being merely representative of "old Europe" compared with a new, more pro-American Europe emerging with the accession of eight formerly communist countries to the European Union (EU) on May 1, 2004, cranked up the tension in Transatlantic relations to levels not seen for decades. Americans were already well aware of Rumsfeld's talent for stirring controversy. Now it was Europe's turn. And France and Germany rose dutifully to take his bait. But why, we need to ask, were they so easily angered? Was Rumsfeld right after all?

Early indications suggested that he had a point. On January 30, 2003 eight days after his comments, eight European states—Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, plus new NATO and forthcoming EU members the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary—signed a letter offering clear support to the Anglo-American position. They devoted almost half of their missive to an unambiguous statement that: "The Transatlantic Relationship must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime's persistent attempts to threaten world security." On February 5, 2003, a second letter of support came from the so-called Vilnius Group—consisting, among others, of the remaining five post-communist EU accession countries: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia.

That bridge over the Franco-German axis to the United States appeared to get higher and stronger precisely as a result of the outraged reaction that those letters provoked in France. President Chirac's notorious telling-off of the accession states for being "not very well brought up" and for having missed a good opportunity "to keep quiet" occasioned a welter of counter-rhetoric across the region. In response, the February 19, 2003 edition of the leading newspaper in the Czech Republic, Mlada Fronta Dnes, rounded on "The representative of a nation so proud of its diplomatic aptitude" who had "shown himself to be a boor with little diplomacy." Hungary's Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs complained that: "No country can be stigmatized or threatened because it thinks differently about the Euro-Atlantic partnership." Lithuania's Lietuvos Rytas newspaper read: "The French President seems to forget that Eastern Europe, which regained freedom from Moscow's tyranny, is not knocking at the EU's door with the aim of becoming voiceless servants of Paris or Berlin." Slovakia's Pravda concluded that: "Candidate countries do not want to join the European Union to be quiet, but to express their opinion more forcefully…The EU is not simply France and Germany."

After the conflict had begun some of the most senior representatives of the region appeared to add further weight to Rumsfeld's argument. In an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza on April 12, 2003, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski declared: "We must constantly bear in mind not only that we are fighting for global causes beyond Polish borders, but also that our security might be endangered one day. Who will we be able to count on? Who will help us and give us both political and technical support? Before Baghdad was taken I asked a Polish publicist who we could depend on more strongly in the eventuality of a terrorist or some other attack—the United States, or the Weimar Triangle [France, Germany and Poland]? Who makes decisions more swiftly and with higher determination? I will not ‘dot the i.' I cannot do that as president. I see you are smiling, gentlemen, therefore you probably know the answer."

To cap it all, and building on arguments that President Kwasniewski himself had made explicitly, President George W. Bush, welcoming the foreign ministers of the seven incoming NATO countries at the White House on May 9, 2003, said: "In the battle of Iraq, Central and Eastern European countries have stood with America and our coalition to end a grave threat to peace, and to rid Iraq of a brutal regime." Moving to the broader point he continued: "The peoples (of this region) have a fresh memory of tyranny and they know the consequences of complacency in the face of danger." The argument appeared to be well made. Closer inspection, however, suggested that all was not quite as it seemed.

It emerged, for example, that, in some cases at least, the first letter of support for the Anglo-American position had been anything but the result of considered deliberation. Then Czech President Vaclav Havel, for one, had not even seen the letter before agreeing to sign it. He had been contacted by the Czech deputy foreign minister during intermission at a theatrical performance at Bratislava's National Theatre, who related the gist of the letter's contents by cell phone. The Czech President's powers, moreover, are mainly ceremonial. The real head of government, Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, later conceded that he would have found it impossible to have secured parliamentary approval for the letter. During the war itself, he was at pains to say: "We are not members of Iraqi Freedom." Hungary's Prime Minister Peter Medgyessey said much the same: "Hungary is not at war, it is not involved in the conflict." Stretching credulity, Slovenia's Foreign Minister, Dimitrij Rupel, in Slovenia's Vecer newspaper on March 1, 2003, went one better, claiming that: "The statement was in my opinion misinterpreted as a statement for backing the US stance. I swear that I was not thinking even for a moment in such a way."

There was worse to come when observers began to notice the opinion polls. Even in Poland, between 60 and 75 percent of respondents said they opposed a US-led attack. (As one might expect, there was a ‘patriotic surge' once Polish troops were deployed. A CBOS poll in July showed 50 percent support for sending Polish troops to Iraq with only 33 percent opposed. By August, however, those figures had been reversed with 55 percent opposing the Polish deployment and only 36 percent supporting it.) Across the region, public opinion generally was solidly opposed to the war. Opposition, polls indicated, hovered around 70 percent in the Czech Republic, 60-70 percent in Slovakia, 80-90 percent in Slovenia, 80 percent in Estonia, 75 percent in Latvia. On the wider questions of shared values between the accession states and the US, the Pew Global Attitudes survey and the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Trends survey, both out last summer, also made for interesting reading. If, after all, there really was a stronger bond between the accession states and the US than between the current EU member states and the US, straightforward questions on fundamental values should have provided supporting evidence. They did not.

Pew, for instance, asked respondents to answer the question of whether it was necessary to believe in God to be moral. In the US, 40 percent answered no, but almost 60 percent answered yes. Respondents in Germany, Italy, Britain and France gave similar responses to each other averaging 74 percent saying no and 25 percent saying yes—an emphatic difference between Western Europe and the US. Responses among Poles, Slovaks and Czechs, it is true, were, generally, less obviously secular in character than their counterparts in Western Europe. But in every case a majority, and taken together 66 percent, said no, it was not necessary to believe in God to be moral. On average only 32 percent agreed with the proposition. The CEE countries questioned showed far more proximity to their West European partners-to-be than to the United States.

Pew also asked respondents in the same countries to say which was more important to them: that the government guarantees that no one is in need, or freedom from government to pursue one's goals? The results in West Europe and East Europe were almost identical: almost two-thirds prioritized social provision over civil liberties. In the US, the results were almost exactly the reverse: one-third favored social provision; almost 60 percent freedom from government to pursue one's goals.

On the principles underlying international relations, the German Marshall Fund asked respondents in the US, Britain, France, Germany and Poland whether they agreed with the proposition that "under some conditions" war is necessary to obtain justice. While 84 percent of Americans answered in the affirmative, only 46 percent of Poles shared their view—surprisingly close to the 39 percent of respondents who said yes to the same question in France and Germany. The exception in Europe was, unsurprisingly, Britain, where 74 percent answered yes. (It is perhaps worth noting as an aside that 60 percent of French and German respondents disagreed with the proposition that even in some conditions war is necessary to obtain justice, hardly the sort of result likely to reassure the accession states that their security requirements can be satisfied without the United States!)

Turning to the material ambitions of the East European states and where those ambitions were most likely to be satisfied, the case for a bloc of East European countries forming a pro-American fifth column, looked less convincing still. First the bare facts. At purchasing power parity on a non-weighted basis, the GDP per capita of the post-communist EU accession eight is exactly 50 percent of the current EU average. Unemployment ranges from a low of five percent in Estonia to a high of almost 18 percent in Poland. The average unemployment rate across the region is just over 10 percent. Economic development is clearly a matter of pressing concern for the region. Who, one must therefore ask, is more likely to help these countries achieve their goals?

Since over 60 percent of CEE countries' trade turnover is conducted with EU countries as compared with under 10 percent with America, it seemed obvious to many that there was no contest. Moreover, all regions in the accession countries where GDP per capita falls below 75 percent of the EU average will be eligible for significant EU aid grants. Taking these factors together, the notion that Eastern Europe could ever be persuaded (as the buzz word early in 2003 in Washington had it) to "disaggregate" from Western Europe seemed unlikely, not to say fanciful.

The counter-argument to the Rumsfeld position thus appeared strong. It was not strong enough, however, and was in any case misdirected. Opponents of Rumsfeld's argument had indeed successfully knocked down some of the more optimistic extrapolations about the underlying positions of the CEE countries from the comments of their leaders in the early months of 2003. Support for the US-led war in Iraq was either short-lived, appropriated from ceremonial rather than actual leaders, or insufficiently backed up with popular approval. Evidence of a kind of congruity between the CEE states and the US on matters of fundamental principle was also lacking. The overwhelming dominance of the EU in economic affairs was indisputable.

Crucially though, that counter-argument failed to distinguish between Atlanticism, as a strategic foreign policy orientation, and pro-Americanism, as a standpoint associated with affection for the American way of doing things. America's staunchest ally in the world—Great Britain—shows no sign of reconfiguring its domestic, social and political agenda along American lines. Its head of state is a monarch. Its health system is statist. It has no death penalty. Its opinion-forming classes are in many respects as anti-American as its counterparts across Europe. The bulk of its trade is also conducted with its partners in the EU. And yet, Britain has a proven track record, more or less regardless of which party is in power, of Atlanticism in its foreign policy.

The CEE countries have their own reasons for taking a similar line. No one expects Vladimir Putin to attempt a re-launch of the Russian or Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. But who is to say what Russia will look like in 10 or 20 years time? Its economy may have recovered. Russia may be in a stronger position to reassert itself. Recent political developments in Russia suggest that the country is not heading in the direction of western-style, liberal-democracy. On the contrary, the rise of aggressive nationalists, who took 20 percent of the parliamentary vote at the December 2003 elections, is precisely the kind of development that will raise East European concerns about the longer-term intentions of their traditional enemy. Why not, one could well imagine the CEE states asking, have an insurance policy? And who better to underwrite that policy than the United States of America?

There is also a difference between supporting the US on a specific item of foreign policy, such as Iraq, and the more general commitment to the trans-Atlantic relationship. CEE elites may, in some cases, have buckled in response to the former while remaining firm in their allegiance to the latter. Many commentators have noted with cynicism that the Vilnius declaration was quickly followed by US Senate ratification of the second wave of NATO enlargement, as if to say that the US ‘bought' the signatures of the applicant countries with pledges to bring them into NATO immediately. Perhaps so. We do not need to be naïve about international diplomacy. But we must also ask why these countries were so keen to join NATO in the first place? There is no convincing alternative to the conclusion that the US is seen by the CEE states as the ultimate guarantor of their national security.

The "trade and aid" objection to the linkage between the CEE countries and America is also less destabilizing than it might appear. Trade, it is easily forgotten, works both ways. Importers and exporters both enjoy its benefits. Moreover, a significant proportion of East European trade with West Europe is made up from the activities of West European companies that have re-deployed to East Europe for cost reasons and now re-export their merchandise to the EU. Volkswagen's massive investments in the Czech Republic provide but one example. Just because Germany is the Czech Republic's most important trading partner does not mean that the German government will easily be able to use that economic pre-eminence to leverage political support on foreign policy. Structural aid may seem like a different matter. One could easily imagine a scenario in which French or German diplomats use the threat of withholding structural aid grants as a bargaining chip in extracting support on foreign policy issues. However, there could be a high price to pay for such a strategy. Once the accession states are EU members, they too can bring their power to bear. They, and not just France and Germany, will become party to alliance building and bloc formation. On May 1, 2004, we enter a new paradigm in European politics in which the ‘carrot and stick' diplomacy of the accession years simply disappears.

It is here that we encounter the real, underlying problem with the anti-Rumsfeld position. It is worth recalling the single most penetrating and revealing comment of 2003 on the question of the accession states and EU foreign policy making. It was made by Gunter Verheugen, the EU enlargement Commissioner, to the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on March 17, 2003. It is concise, straightforward and ultimately devastating: "We cannot expect the candidate countries to observe a common EU position that does not exist."

The hard reality of global power politics as demonstrated by the Iraq crisis can be summed up in two simple equations. The first is that Europe as a foreign policy player is smaller than the sum of its constituent parts. Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Poland were all more significant taken singly on the world stage than the EU as a whole. Worse, for those hopeful of an emergent EU superpower, the attitude of the accession countries on the one hand, and the fact that after the accession there will be 25 and not just 15 members on the other, suggested that not only was the EU smaller than the sum of its parts, but that the bigger it gets on the continent of Europe, the smaller it becomes as a player in the world.

The Iraq crisis showed that the EU will never speak with a single voice on foreign policy beyond uncontroversial issues at the lowest common denominator. This is not to say that lowest common denominator issues—peace-keeping in the Balkans or peace-brokering in the Middle East—are irrelevant. Just because we call "soft power" soft this does not mean that it is unimportant. But it does mean that the EU as a "hard power" in global, geopolitics is not a serious option. The underlying assumption in Rumsfeld's argument that Europe is changing fundamentally was sounder than many in Europe are yet willing to admit. French and German ambitions to use the EU as a counter-weight to pre-eminent, US power have been undercut, ironically, by an enlargement and integration process of which both have been the primary sponsors.

There are two possible conclusions to the underlying question of whether the accession of the CEE states will re-energize the trans-Atlantic relationship. In the positive sense, residual fears about Russia and the obvious enthusiasm among the CEE countries for joining NATO do suggest that they will alter the balance of forces in a pro-Atlanticist direction. But perhaps more importantly, the mere fact that the EU will increase in size ensures that it will never become the kind of rival to US power that some worst-case theorists in the Department of Defense may have feared.

Either way, May 1, 2004 will be a good day for the US and for those in Europe who value the trans-Atlantic relationship. Heads America wins, tails its opponents lose.
 

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