Ron Asmus Responds to Heilbrunn

Ron Asmus Responds to Heilbrunn

Ron Asmus says Jacob Heilbrunn misread Central and Eastern European leaders’ missives to the Obama administration—and the role of the German Marshall Fund.

I take issue with Jacob Heilbrunn's August 20 piece entitled "Yalta Redux" about the Open Letter from Central and East European Leaders to the Obama administration.

I was not a signatory to the letter. I was the project manager of a small grant the German Marshall Fund (GMF) gave to the Budapest-based International Centre for Democratic Transitions to pull together a group of Central and East European thinkers to discuss changing attitudes in the region toward the United States. As such, I was part of the deliberations that led to the grant and then privy to some of the discussions that produced first a GMF policy brief on the subject, entitled "Why The Obama Administration Should Not taken Central and Eastern Europe for Granted," which is available on our website and which subsequently turned into the basis for the Open Letter from leaders in the region to the administration.

Why does Mr. Heilbrunn have it wrong? Simply put, to assert that this letter -stripped of its essentials-is accusing the Obama administration of betraying Central and Eastern Europe is absurd. It is not only a complete misreading of what this letter was all about but also misses its real message-and arguably a much more interesting story.

First, this letter is not about Russia. It is about America and changing attitudes in the region toward the United States. It is a warning that America's image in the region also needs repair and a plea to Washington not to take these countries for granted as allies. It argues that all is not well in a region that is being buffeted by new domestic and international developments. This is the main theme of the letter, yet it somehow escapes Mr. Heilbrunn's attention.

Second, this letter is not an anti-Obama statement. It is the result of a discussion that has been taking place for some time and which actually predates Obama's run for the presidency. I would guess that most of the members of the original group who wrote the policy brief are actually pro-Obama. I did not detect any nostalgia for George Bush in the group's deliberations. On the contrary, most members of the group probably consider much of the damage done to the image of the United States in the region to have taken place under Bush. They want to see President Obama as the person who can fix it-i.e., as the solution as opposed to the problem.

At the same time, it is also clear that Obama's magic does not elicit the same echo in Central and Eastern Europe that it does in Western Europe. Living in Europe, one can feel that. There is obviously concern that this president may not know the region or the issues that concern these countries. In the twenty years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, he was not part of the debates on NATO enlargement and Russia. His track record on these countries and the issues that matter to them is still a bit thin. He has an overwhelming domestic- and foreign-policy agenda. One does not have to be paranoid to worry that Central and Eastern Europe might fall through the cracks. That is why they are writing to him and his administration.

Third, this letter is not Russo-phobic. It is perhaps a sign of Western intellectual narrowness and laziness that whenever Central and East Europeans speak about Russia, we don't engage them on their issues and terms. Instead, some critics seek to tar and feather them as Russophobes in order to disqualify their arguments in advance. What does this group argue? The authors say that Russia today is a revisionist power trying to reclaim influence over its neighborhood and over them. They welcome a reset in the West's relations with Russia but urge that it be done carefully and in the right way, and not abandon Western principles and values. They note Russian efforts to rewrite the rules of the game in European security and to re-legitimate their sphere of influence.

Well, that sounds about right to me. Anyone who followed Moscow's defense and glorification of the seventieth anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact last week should take pause. That justification of the sphere of influence as a legitimate tool of Russian policy was not just about history, but also about current Russian thinking. You, too, might not sleep well if you lived in a country that was carved up by what Moscow now describes as a wonderful act of Soviet statesmanship, but which was in reality a despicable act that sealed the outbreak of World War II.

Finally, I want to rebut what Mr. Heilbrunn implies about the German Marshall Fund of the United States. I appreciate the fact that he thinks we are influential. But to imply that we cleverly orchestrated all of this in a behind-the-scenes way is wrong. I may occasionally wish I had the kind of powers he ascribes to me and GMF but, alas, I don't. We helped give voice to a debate that was already taking place in the region and brought it to the attention of American and European policy makers.

That is part of what we do for a living. Our mission is to support transatlantic debate and cooperation. We like to think of ourselves as an important player across Europe, but we do have a special interest and have invested a great deal in the think-tank and NGO scene in Central and Eastern Europe over the years. The issue of whether Central and Eastern Europe is in danger of drifting away from the United States-and what Washington should do about it-is an issue that is right up our alley. But we are a big-tent organization politically. Institutionally, we have no political line, including on this issue. Our debates in-house can be as lively as those in the pages of The National Interest! Wikipedia informs me that I am a liberal hawk, but I can assure you most of my colleagues are not.

Several years ago one of the authors of the Open Letter-Sasha Vondra-and I were asked to write an article about the durability of atlanticism in Central and Eastern Europe. In that article we argued that there were structural reasons why these countries were likely to remain atlanticist but that there were several wild cards. One of them was U.S. foreign policy and how we treated them. One of the conclusions we drew in that article:

Atlanticism in Central and Eastern Europe is not a blank cheque. America's standing in this region is connected to the belief that the United States is a benign and largely altruistic Atlanticist power willing to use its might in pursuit of a set of purposes and goals that these countries share and from which they and the region benefit. Central and East Europeans today are still inclined to trust the motives of America more than those of many major European powers. This standing is also based on performance and effectiveness and America's willingness to take the interests of its allies into account. If such factors are called into question, if America comes to be seen in the region as a unilateralist nation pursuing a narrow self-centered agenda and unwilling to take its allies' concerns into account, then such support is likely to dissipate and eventually collapse-precisely because then the United States will be seen as having ceased to be the kind of power so many Central and East Europeans have respected so much in the past.

I still stand by those words. It was perhaps the key point of the letter. It helps explain why views of the United States in the region have shifted in recent years. It highlights what these countries are looking for from President Obama and his administration today. Let's hope they get it.


Ronald D. Asmus is executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center and in charge of strategic planning at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.