Distance and Perspective

America’s foreign policy elite could learn something from views across the Atlantic. Paul Saunders gives his impressions from London and Berlin.

Spending a week in London and Berlin makes clear that many of America's foreign policy elite could benefit from taking another look at some of their core assumptions, from another perspective.

Two of the darlings of American neo-conservatives and neo-liberals-Poland and Georgia-clearly appear very different from a closer vantage point than they do on the other side of the Atlantic. In London, many foreign policy experts to whom I spoke saw Poland's previous government as pursuing a thoroughly self-destructive course in its dealings with both fellow European Union members and Russia because it took a hard line toward Moscow with limited leverage of its own and no real card to play other than American support. This profoundly alienated European governments, who saw Polish calls for "solidarity" in dealing with the Kremlin as an effort to shift the costs of Warsaw's approach from Poland to Europe.

More narrowly, many experts expressed frustration that Poland is blocking the renewal of the European Union's Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia-a framework agreement that provides the legal foundation for specific EU-Russia understandings in other areas-in an attempt to gain leverage on energy issues. As they see it, Poland is wrong-headedly blocking precisely the agreement that would allow the European Union to move forward in establishing a system of rules in European-Russian energy relations.

More striking, however, were comments by a London-based Polish expert about his country's energy needs. Listening to the American debate on Russia's energy relationship with Poland, one would think that Warsaw is concerned that interruptions of Russian gas supplies would shut down the entire country. According to this expert, however, Poland uses domestic coal resources to produce 95 percent of its electricity and hydroelectric power for the rest. Natural gas is used for residential heating (roughly 20 percent) and industrial applications, including petrochemicals (roughly 80 percent). Since he also said that Poland produces about 40 percent of its gas domestically, the country should have enough gas to keep its citizens warm through the winter and to keep around quarter of those industries going without any Russian gas at all.

What this suggests is that Poland has considerable scope to reduce its dependence on Russian gas by improving energy efficiency, which is still very poor, and by industrial restructuring. The Polish expert to whom I spoke admitted this himself-but complained that it could be politically difficult because some workers might lose their jobs. Protecting Poland from Russian domination is one thing, but protecting the Polish government from making the kinds of difficult domestic choices that other governments face every day is rather different.

In discussing Georgia, what is most remarkable is that not a single one of the British, French or German foreign policy experts whom I encountered views Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a democrat. On the contrary, the overwhelming consensus was that Saakashvili and his advisors have learned to repeat the key democratic mantras during their foreign trips but routinely ignore this rhetoric in governing the country. Observers noted Saakashvili's skillful elimination of other political power centers and sources of alternative perspectives in the parliament and the media as well as the utter lack of independent courts.

With this in mind, the European analysts whom I met were deeply skeptical of the Bush Administration's goal of bringing Georgia into NATO. They considered Georgia's domestic conditions fundamentally different from those in many other new members of the alliance, which had more experience with democratic governance, different political cultures and-most important-leaders who were trying to empower democratic governments rather than themselves. And they were concerned that some prominent Americans, like aspiring Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, seem to be encouraging Saakashvili's worst instincts by describing Georgia as a "test" of U.S.-Russian relations. And it was quite clear that Georgian-Russian tensions, temporarily fuelled this week by Saakashvili's theatrical berating of a Russian peacekeeping officer in front of Georgian television cameras, make most Europeans less rather than more interested in a treaty commitment to defend Georgia.

What is ultimately most interesting is not the fact that Europeans have different views from the Bush Administration and many in America's foreign policy establishment-it is that one very rarely hears their arguments or the information they present in our own country's foreign policy debate. Why, in 2007, should one have to travel to Europe to hear these perspectives presented in a serious way? And how can America possibly be successful as a global leader without a public discussion that incorporates disparate views on not only these issues, but many that are considerably more important to U.S. interests?


Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center and associate publisher of The National Interest.