The Berlin Wall fell two decades ago, leading to a brief moment in which many people believed that history had ended. Europe's security no longer was an issue.
However, history has begun again. Russia may have no interest in conquering its neighbors, but last year in Georgia Moscow demonstrated that it would assert itself along its border. The Bush administration responded with words rather than bombs. Now the Obama administration has dropped missile-defense plans for the Czech Republic and Poland.
The result was predictable cries of betrayal abroad and capitulation at home. Disquiet was expressed by not only the Czech and Polish governments, but also other neighbors of Russia, such as Lithuania.
Former Polish President Lech Walesa even complained that "The Americans have always tended to their interest only and have taken advantage of everyone else." However, which European state does not pursue its interest? Including expecting Washington to risk American lives and treasure to defend countries unwilling to spend much on their own defense?
In any case, better relations between Washington and Moscow are likely to lower tensions between Russia and its neighbors. No one gains from two nuclear powers challenging one another while maneuvering military forces in close proximity, as in Georgia last year. Any U.S.-Russian conflict would likely engulf most of Moscow's vulnerable neighbors.
Moreover, the illusion that the United States would rush to the aid of distant, hard-to-defend states with little relevance to America's security could only mislead nations like Poland. John Bolton called the missile decision "a near catastrophe for American relations with Eastern European countries and many in NATO," but the real catastrophe would be for more countries to mimic Georgia in provoking Russian military action in the expectation of U.S. support. A heightened risk of war with Moscow is a high price to pay for better relations with dependent states.
Rather than bemoan the Obama administration's shift, nations in Central and Eastern Europe should act on the obvious wake-up call. No longer should they entrust their fates to a large, distant and (like them) self-interested power. In the end, they must rely on their own efforts. This is as it always has been. For centuries peoples in this region have lived uncomfortably in the shadow of neighboring great powers. The demise of the Soviet Union offered sudden liberation, but no permanent guarantees. Last year's Russo-Georgian war illustrated the uncertainties of even peaceful times.
During that conflict, said Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus: "Let's stand together united and victory will be on our side." But the Central and Eastern Europeans had little practical help to offer Georgia, the European Union made only symbolic gestures and Washington preferred to bluster. Some observers saw then and continue to see the problem as the lack of NATO membership for Tbilisi. Ron Asmus of the German Marshall Fund contends: "We must take real steps toward solving this problem by providing strategic reassurance to Central and Eastern Europe through the front door of NATO and not the back door of missile defense."
However, the problem is not membership in the club, but geopolitical interest-or lack thereof. Washington had reason to risk much during the Cold War to prevent Soviet domination of Western Europe. The United States is little affected by Russian influence in nations once belonging to the Warsaw Pact, or even part of the Soviet Union itself. "Old Europe" is similarly less interested in the fate of countries as they range further east. Where the United States and leading European states might draw the defense line against Russia is hard to say, but draw it they very well might, irrespective of the formalities of the transatlantic alliance.
Moscow understands the geopolitical disparity. A conflict along Russia's southern border matters much more to Russia than to America or Europe. Even had Georgia been part of NATO last year, Moscow likely would have struck and NATO likely would have temporized. The Baltic nations are equally distant and indefensible. Poland is better situated, but hardly secure. For all of these countries allied intervention would be anything but automatic. After all, in 1939 Britain and France guaranteed Poland's security and even declared war on Nazi Germany-but then did nothing as the latter conquered Poland. There would be no more enthusiasm today for risking a showdown with nuclear-armed Russia in its geopolitical backyard. Any state leaving its security up to outsiders in such circumstances risks catastrophic disappointment.
Vulnerable nations should adopt a different approach. First, they should forge better relations with Moscow. That does not mean sacrificing national independence, but it does mean taking the interests of other countries into account. Certainly it means not deliberately antagonizing more powerful neighbors.
Some might characterize this course as shameful appeasement, but it is really good sense. If you live next to a hungry bear, you should not provoke it. Former-Polish Defense Minister Alexsander Szczyglo complained of the Obama administration's missile decision: "The Russians will have a voice in the affairs of this part of Europe." But that seems inevitable, just as the United States has more than a little influence in Latin America. Just ask Honduras, under pressure from Washington for ousting its president in a constitutional dispute.
Yet prior to the victory of Donald Tusk in 2007, the Polish government seemed intent on offending both of its big neighbors. Georgia's determination to violently reassert control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia irrespective of the preferences of residents of those territories and the views of Russia made conflict in the Caucasus inevitable.