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September 5, 2012 |  7 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

Did Obama Really Abandon Central Europe?

Daria Wiktoria Dylla: Romney has attacked current US security policy for a missile defense plan unfavorable to NATO allies in Central Europe. Especially Poland may be in a vulnerable position without the external security balance provided by the US, but the removal of troops will be compensated for by the positioning of missiles. Thus, Poland has nothing to worry about.

Mitt Romney and the experts close to his presidential campaign have repeatedly proclaimed that Barack Obama abandoned the US's close allies in Central and Eastern Europe when "scrapping" the Bush-era missile defence plans and resetting Washington's relations with Moscow. How important this argument in Romney's tactic of attacking the current US security policy is, coincides with the fact that Romney chose to visit Poland along with Israel and Great Britain during his overseas trip at the end of July. It is nothing new that Obama's redefined missile defence plan faces criticism from the Republicans, who use it as a platform to accuse the current administration of being too generous towards Russia at the expense of the post-communist NATO allies in the region. But did Obama really abandon Central Europe by replacing the Bush-era missile plan with an alternative project?

Let's start answering this question by asking why Poland actually agreed to host parts of a missile defence system on its soil. European refusal of the American missile defence would, for Washington, imply the following consequences: a loss of interest for strong security cooperation with Europe and the decision to instead build the missile defence on its own territory (which is possible considering the technical functionality of the system but tied to much higher costs). Logically, America would then withdraw its soldiers from Europe. This would lead to the dissolution of NATO because Europe's non-cooperation would be understood as clear confirmation of incompatible threat perceptions between the US and Europe, thereby destroying the last reason for the NATO alliance to exist at all.

In this case, i.e. without American protection, Europe would become largely insecure because of insufficient security capabilities. Since Europe would have to carry the negative security balance itself after the withdrawal of American soldiers, this would lead to attempts at major rearmament across Europe. Furthermore, if the US function as an external balancing power in Europe disappeared, the great European powers would become unbalanced, and the question would become: how will they behave toward each other? Would Germany strive to obtain nuclear weapons? Worries about the security and defence capabilities of the EU and the sense of responsibility for boosting these capabilities, could give Berlin a plausible justification for this decision. In turn, an unbalanced Russia would enhance the threat perception in the post-communist states as well as in Sweden, Norway and Finland. Ultimately, because of the absence of US protection, Poland, with its sandwich-position between Germany and Russia, would fall again in the insecure, grey zone.

However, if Poland's external survival depends on the continuous presence of the US in Europe as a stability power, and if the refusal of the American missile shield would cause the withdrawal of American soldiers from Europe, then the decision of the Polish government to host the missile defence should be seen as the optimal alternative Poland could choose. Consequently, from the perspective of Polish security, it makes little difference whether the missile defence system ultimately will be a part of a national US or a common NATO missile defence system. Rather, the most important thing is that while the US shifts strategic attention toward Asia and removes soldiers and weapons from Europe, the missile defence system will anchor it militarily in Europe again. Additionally, according to Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski, Poland can expect an increasing number of US soldiers deployed on its territory. Instead of setting up a base with 10 ground-based interceptors on Polish territory, as stated in the agreement from August 2008, improved versions of the U.S. Navy's Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) will probably be placed there.

Since Poland, as a result of its troubled geopolitical position, has learnt to think about international relations in categories of Realpolitik, it could not be very concerned about the reset between Washington and Moscow either. Regardless of more or less figurative rhetoric between the USA and Russia, the current distribution of power as well as incompatible interests in many regions of the world do not allow the two great powers to eschew a competitive approach. So far the Obama administration has softened its rhetoric towards Russia without making any major concessions; Poland has, therefore, nothing to worry about.

In sum, Romney's assumption that Poland has become especially disappointed with America during Obama's presidency does not seem to be right. Whether Romney may be aware of this or not, he will not forgo accusing his Democratic rival of favoring Russia at costs of US allies in Central Europe. Rather, he is going to make this argument one of the central issues in a final debate in the election campaign over the future course of US foreign policy.


Dr. Daria W. Dylla is a senior researcher and a teacher at the Institute for International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne. She specializes in the European Foreign and Security Policy, transatlantic relations, and theories of International Relations.

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Tags: | security | Russia | US | NATO | Poland | missle defense |
 
Comments
Vikas  Kumar

September 5, 2012

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I'ld like to add a point to Dr. Dylla's description of no big surprises vis-a-vis East and Central Europe in US foreign policy during Obama's tenure. And this applies to other large democratic countries like India. These are huge countries, where change of ruling party does not lead to a change in substance of the foreign policy. Only the style (in Dr Dylla's article, rhetoric) changes. In these countries policies depend on fragile compromises among competing interests that no leader, irrespective of party background, can afford to disturb. Campaign rhetoric does not impinge much on policies (didn't Obama promise to scrap Bush's policies?).
 
Courtenay  Mitchell

September 7, 2012

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I think your main point here is very accurate. The US has multiple commitments and interests around the world and I I feel the situation in Poland represents a measured calculation, on the US government's behalf, based on an assessment of European needs and capabilities and US priorities and capabilities: the risk to Europe from Russia currently, I believe (contrary to Republican thinking!), is low, and US policy in Central Europe represents an acknowledgement of this. In short, Europe remains balanced, but at less cost to the US.

Fundamentally, however, I think this issue rests on the differing perceptions of Russia put forward by the Romney campaign and the Obama administration. While the Romney campaign appears to be characterizing the Russians as a significant US adversary, the Obama administration's general approach to Russia seems to have been directed more at avoiding serious confrontation and attempting to improve relations. A significant US presence in Central Europe would signify a threat to Russia, whereas the Obama approach provides a sense of security for Central Europe whilst not appearing overly threatening to Russia. In short, I think that the real the issue at stake here, for Republicans and Democrats attempting to formulate policy toward Central Europe, might revolve more around the question of how far they believe Russia actually poses a threat to American and European interests.
 
Tabish  Shah

September 9, 2012

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Very accurate article.

Additionally, pursuing a closer relationship with Turkey would offset the risks to Europe from Russia at much less cost- the Russian threat comes from influence it yields via its natural resources which can be circumvented through soft-power i.e strengthening ties with Turkey, who in turn have closer ties with Iran, which in turn isolates Russia and opens up further options for energy diversification.
 
Tabish  Shah

September 9, 2012

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We're seeing this reflected in increasingly closer US-Turkey ties - so the US are not abandoning Europe, simply protecting in a less agressive way.
 
George  Evans

September 11, 2012

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Romney's rhetoric seems to hark back to a bygone era and will undoubtedly appeal to the hard-liners within his support base. However, it is true that Russia have become a recalcitrant opponent in their dealings at the Security Council regarding Syria which can only assist Romney's insistence that a stronger hand in diplomatic relations is required toward these traditional US-opponents. That diplomatic goodwill has all but dissipated in the wake of the very public disputes over Syria

The use of soft power in Europe here is, I think, a very interesting point. The Obama administration's shift in diplomatic policy towards Russia seems to have been dealt a blow by Russian intransigence and the attempt to utilise 'soft-power' has failed to paper over the cracks in US-Russian relations. The truth or falsity of whether Obama has abandoned European allies' security will not affect Romney's assertions that diplomatic efforts are a further symptom of his weakness.

 
Jana  Mudronova

September 11, 2012

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It is important to realize that Obama's approach to Russia has evolved from active, positive attitude of (un)successful disarmament plan to more passive relation which objective is to avoid any major confrontation. The missile defense system represents only one of the issue, a piece of the puzzle.

In addition, I would disagree with argument that the US serves as "external balancing power" in Europe, if anything the US with its missile defense plan caused numerous disputes among EU member states.

Overall, i don't think Obama, Romney or even Bush abandoned Central Europe, as they never had real political interest in the region. Bush tried to take advantage of the region inclination towards the West and almost hysterical resilience against anything Russian (but oil and gas).
 
Tabish  Shah

September 12, 2012

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The performance of allied nations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well the Libyan intervention illustrated substantial shortcomings in European military capabilities - e.g. UK forces could not pacify Basra or Helmand - US troops were required, the US had to provide 90% of the airpower during the Libyan intervention

So in aggregate the US's balancing role makes Europe safer both in terms of military and soft power in the current geopolitical environment.
 

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