Adding insult to injury has become a trademark of President’s Obama policies regarding Poland and other Central and Eastern European (CEE) states. After several political jabs and diplomatic mishaps, including referring to Nazi concentration camps as “Polish death camps,” he has created considerable tension in relations between the U.S. and the region. Of course, the administration’s lack of commitment to strengthening ties with CEE in the short run is a far greater problem for CEE than for the U.S. Still, Obama’s policies regarding Russia and the CEE states seem to consist in eschewing some old, faithful allies without acquiring new ones. In the long run, the decline of American influence in the region and the failure of the Russian “reset” will undermine the U.S.’s strategic foreign-policy goals.
“What on earth happened to Sikorski, why has he become so pro-German and pro-EU all of a sudden?” I was recently asked by a renowned British journalist and writer known for his skepticism toward the European Union and his support for the Anglosphere. “He thinks that Barack Obama may be reelected” was my immediate answer.
Indeed, until last year, Radek Sikorski, Poland’s minister of foreign affairs and Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s most trusted adviser on international matters, was known to be one of the most Atlantic-oriented politicians in Europe. He was educated at Oxford; he wrote for National Review; he was a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; and he is happily married to Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize–winning American writer. Formerly the Polish minister of defense, Sikorski has supported the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan and Poland’s participation in both operations.
This commitment to alliance with the U.S. was neither well understood nor welcomed in Western Europe (especially in Paris and Berlin), and it was not fully backed by the Polish public. Before 2011, Sikorski and other leading Polish politicians were frank about their belief that the European Union is merely an economic pact and that only their alliance with the U.S. could guarantee geopolitical security. This was the view of other CEE states as well. Their leaders were convinced that Russia’s rekindled ambitions were a threat to the region’s stability; their concerns grew, understandably, after the 2008 war in Georgia. But for no good strategic reason, the bulk of NATO’s defense facilities and troops have remained idly stationed in Germany, still burdening American taxpayers. Even today, CEE states host no significant NATO bases.
For Sikorski and other pro-American CEE politicians, the signing of a missile-defense pact in 2008 between the U.S., Poland, and the Czech Republic was a strategic success. The system had technical limitations and was never designed to render the region impervious to a potential Russian attack. But an increased American presence in any form would serve as proof that the U.S. was committed to the region’s security. The pact specifically involved locating U.S. anti-missile defenses in Poland and a radar installation in the Czech Republic. The system was designed to take down a limited number of warheads. It was assumed they would probably be from Iran.
In Poland, the pact was signed by Sikorski and Condoleezza Rice in August 2008. Russia reacted immediately, threatening a new arms race and establishing a hypothetical strategic plan to destroy the missile shield. “Poland cannot go unpunished,” said the hawkish General Anatoly Nogovitsyn. In 2011, Obama unilaterally broke the pact when he announced that no elements of the missile-defense system would be deployed in the two countries and that the U.S. would collaborate more closely with Russia on “defense” issues. Moscow officially expressed its satisfaction.
Granted, in times of economic crisis, political leaders are apt to make problematic decisions. Also, Russian cooperation is crucial to carrying out the American mission in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, a contentious gesture toward old allies should have been accompanied by some form of reassurance. Instead, the Obama administration treated the CEE states to an unadulterated serving of political brutality and diplomatic insensitivity. The administration’s reversal of its decision to locate the missile-defense system in the two CEE countries was communicated to them abruptly. Mention of the reversal was made in a telephone conversation with the president of the Czech Republic and was not preceded by any special consultations.