Few charges are more volatile than that of a "sellout" by the United States and Western Europe of the Central and East European powers. The accusation carries the heaviest historical baggage, evoking memories not only of Yalta, where FDR, Churchill, and Stalin put the final impress upon the post-war settlement, but also, and perhaps even more ominously, of the prewar era, when Britain, following realist precepts, watched impassively as the precarious cordon sanitaire that the French had tried to erect disappeared in the face of Nazi aggression. The idea was that Britain should not concern itself with the Lilliputian squabblings of the far-off Czechs, but, rather, seek an accommodation with Hitler. So perhaps it should not be all that surprising that the publication of an open letter-signed by a plethora of Eastern European dignitaries, including former-Czech President Vaclav Havel and former-Polish President Lech Walesa-addressed to the Obama administration provoked a debate in the editorial pages of the nation's leading newspapers when it first appeared, and that it continues to help shape the debate over American relations with Russia and Eastern Europe.
The gist of the lengthy letter, which was published by the Budapest-based International Centre for Democratic Transition and originally appeared in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, was that the Obama administration was jeopardizing the hard-won freedoms enjoyed by Central Europeans. It charged that America was elevating Russia in importance above Central Europe. Freedom-lovers were being spurned in favor of freedom-bashers. Strip the letter of its flummery, politesse, and throat-clearing, and the message was pretty clear: the Obama administration was betraying Central Europe.
What was not stated in the letter, however, was its actual provenance. The missive did not emerge in an act of parthenogenesis. It was, in fact, the direct result of a study group sponsored by the German Marshall Fund (GMF), an organization that runs high-profile conferences for pro-Western leaders like Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili, and takes a pro-Atlanticist line in European politics. That amounts, in turn, to a rather tough line toward Russia.
During the cold war, the German Marshall Fund pretty much endorsed détente with Russia. Today, however, liberal thinking, or a branch of it, has changed, and the GMF has been changing along with it. Eastern Europe now commands precedence over Russia. The letter exemplifies the change in thinking that has taken place since 1989. Indeed, GMF President Craig Kennedy co-authored a piece in The National Interest with Jeffrey Gedmin, a longtime neoconservative who is president of Radio Liberty/Free Europe calling for a more assertive diplomacy. The letter and its genesis are thus quite instructive. It testifies to the propinquity between liberal hawks and neoconservatives.
When the study group and its connection to the GMF first came to light in an essay by Ulrich Weisser that appeared in the monthly Atlantic Times, it was no surprise that Weisser himself was quite critical of the letter-he belongs to the school of thought in German foreign policy that one might label "Russia first," as opposed to those Germans who think that Central Europe should come first (this topic has always been the subject of debate in Germany, a country that has had traditionally close ties with Moscow).Weisser, a former member of the German government's policy-planning staff, stated that the open letter was "drafted" by the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
In a cogent and generously detailed email response to me, Ron Asmus-who was a former deputy to Richard Holbrooke, a leading proponent of NATO expansion, and now heads the GMF's Brussels branch-says that the letter was not sponsored by GMF. Though the letter emerged from a study group that the German Marshall Fund sponsored, Asmus notes, the GMF itself did not want to claim responsibility for any actual open letter:
From a GMF perspective, we wanted the analytical piece and our grant was clear on that. We did not want to have our name on the advocacy piece. But we agreed that if they wanted to do a separate sister advocacy piece based on the research of the analytical piece, that was their decision.
But as Asmus observes, he himself has written on the topic of American relations with Eastern Europe and Russia, which helped form the backdrop for the study group, and the letter was itself a natural outgrowth of the meetings held by the GMF. How much original analysis was actually contained in the study-group project is also an interesting question-for the most part, the open letter is an extended and eloquent collection of Central European grievances toward American policy, but no more than that. It contains no stunning new policy insights, but then again, there are probably none to be had. The issues and divisions are already clear, and have been for some time.
More interestingly, the letter actually testifies to the influence of the German Marshall Fund in, at a minimum, serving as a laboratory for the letter and, in a sense, it's a pity that the organization didn't want to claim public credit for it. The letter was, you could even say, something of a public relations coup. But in that case it might not have had quite the impact that it carried. A seemingly extempore declaration from anguished Central European leaders is likely to have a bit more impact than a carefully conceived memorandum emanating from a Western think-tank, however prominent.
Putting the merits or demerits of the letter aside, its very existence is testament to the sway that organizations working behind the scenes can help exert upon public perceptions of weighty foreign-policy issues. Just as the neoconservatives attempted, and continue to attempt, to sway debate, so organizations such as the German Marshall Fund that lean toward the liberal hawk end of the political spectrum are also trying to push the Obama administration to adopt a more truculent stance, at least toward Russia, under the rubric of a pro-Atlanticist and pro-freedom agenda.
Fair enough. But where the original open letter fell somewhat short, I think, is in being more, well, open about its own gestation. Imagine if Central European leaders had released such a letter that had emerged from a study group held by an avowedly neoconservative organization, but no one knew until later about its true provenance. The hue and cry would have been enormous. In this instance, then, the signers of the letter might have noted that their missive had its genesis in discussion held by the GMF, which would have been closer to what might be called truth in foreign policy advertising. But most of all, it's the press-the New York Times and other outlets that originally publicized the letter-that failed to give their readers the true background to a missive that wasn't simply a spontaneous plea, but a manifesto with what turns out to be its own involved history.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.