Realpolitik Resurgent?

America’s heart tells it to defend small Eastern European states at all costs, but policy makers would come to a different conclusion if they used their heads.

Georgia and Ukraine want NATO to continue its steady eastern march. Like other Central and Eastern European nations, they have felt uncomfortably close to Russia, Germany or both over the years. The problem is not confined to Europe: Korea is a famed "shrimp among whales," being the neighbor of China, Japan and Russia.

The good news is that the world has changed. Peaceful coexistence appears to be more than a propaganda slogan.

Nevertheless, countries that have been variously occupied, partitioned and dominated prefer not to trust in the goodwill of their large neighbors. Governments rarely verbalize such concerns in polite company, but the fear is no less genuine. Which is why they pine for Washington's embrace. Indeed, Russia's popular eruption against Estonia over the removal of a World War II memorial offers a stark reminder that Russia has yet to join Western Europe in heart and mind. The issue is not just Vladimir Putin's calculated strangulation of democracy. Russia appears to retain both a virulent strain of nationalism and a brutal willingness to employ the military (consider Chechnya) absent in most EU members.

To the question-what to do?-the answer is obvious: enlist the services of a benevolent, distant superpower. Europe might offer a good economic home, but the very ennui that renders so many formerly great powers harmless diminishes the security value of any military alliance with them. In 1939 Great Britain bravely-or recklessly, depending on your point of view-guaranteed Poland's borders. It is hard to imagine the British doing something similar solo today. Germany is even less likely to put its soldiers where they might be spat upon, let alone fired upon.

America is different. The United States conveniently possesses the world's most powerful military. Moreover, truth be told, Washington seems ever ready to go to war. Its list of post-cold-war interventions is long: Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq again. President Bill Clinton almost loosed the Dogs of War against North Korea; President George W. Bush essentially threatened China with war over Taiwan shortly after taking office. More than a few American policymakers have talked about attacking Syria and Iran. Getting the United States to go to war is easy compared to dragging the Europeans into a conflagration anywhere, even on their own continent. Thus the enthusiasm of Central and Eastern Europeans for joining NATO. Surely the alliance aids efforts at continental integration and yields aid for upgrading mediocre militaries. Joining the exclusive club is particularly satisfying for countries that spent years looking in, across the famed Iron Curtain. But the most important factor is Article 5-the possibility of turning a war with Russia, however unlikely, into Europe's, and, more importantly, America's, war.

It's a policy which makes eminent sense in Tbilisi, Kiev and elsewhere in the region. But it doesn't make sense in Washington, D.C. The benefit to America of adding a host of new defense responsibilities is zero. A close relationship with multiple Central and Eastern European states provides modest economic and cultural benefits, but no obvious security gain. One reason for America's expensive outsize military is to back its many treaty commitments. And the price of actually acting on these security guarantees could be huge: Russia remains a serious power with nuclear weapons.  

Moreover, Moscow has clout where America needs it-on the UN Security Council, which affects U.S. policy toward Iran, North Korea, Kosovo and more. Russia's nuclear dealings with Iran have variously reinforced and undercut American sanctions. Russian cooperation with the People's Republic of China could create the framework of a serious anti-American coalition. In short, any cold-blooded assessment of U.S. interests will emphasize Washington's relationship with Moscow over cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe. The latter states have feelings of democratic solidarity, pressure from ethnic interest groups and language of treaty commitments on their side. But in a serious future crisis Washington is likely to, correctly, prefer interest over sentiment.

Fear of again becoming an afterthought in great-power competition undoubtedly concerns countries which saw enough of Russian troops during the cold war.But that possibility also suggests a strategy for the future: upgrade their militaries, create value for Washington and avoid needless confrontation with Moscow.

Relying on the United States to do the "right" thing-rush off to war, if necessary, to preserve the independence of distant countries that spent decades either as part of the Soviet Union or under its domination-out of abstract goodwill is risky at best. Countries ranging from the Czech Republic to Estonia, let alone Georgia and Ukraine, need to demonstrate that they are net security assets rather than deficits.