The United States must reinvigorate its strategic relationship with Central Europe.
That was the conclusion of a three-member panel of experts meeting last week at the 8th CEPA Forum.
“We must answer two fundamental questions,” said moderator Peter Doran, vice-president of research at CEPA. “What advantages are to be gained from regional integration, and can ties like economy and energy sustain that transatlantic link in this era of new uncertainty? Past victories in the Cold War are no guarantees for future success.”
István Gyamati, president of Hungary’s International Centre for Democratic Transition, said formation of the Visegrád Group (V4) “was a response to the American suggestion that we should have regional cooperation instead of joining NATO.”
But he lamented that the United States “has not been helpful” in recent years.
“The first Bush administration caused some friction; this was corrected in the second. We had very good relations with the Obama administration, but now it’s changing,” he complained. “America does not show too much interest in Central and Eastern Europe—and that’s a diplomatic understatement.”
Gyamati added: “Trust is not built by words. There should be American leadership. The only European country that could lead is Germany, but Germany doesn’t want to.”
Tomas Strazay of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association suggested that energy could be considered s the basis for a V4 Plus-U.S. dialogue.
“Definitely, Central European countries have learned a lot in this field in recent years,” he said. “In 2009, Slovakia was left without natural gas for two weeks. This caused enormous damage to our economy—and we were not alone. CEE countries are highly dependent on Russian gas and oil. Through strengthening cooperation in the energy sector, we wanted to change the status quo and get rid of this dependence.”
Among other things, Strazay called for stopping Nordstream—a “fundamental priority”—and constructing more liquefied natural gas terminals, because Poland’s LNG terminal is not large enough to satisfy all of Central Europe’s needs.
Speaking from the Washington perspective, Julianne Smith, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), said the White House needs a reminder about the value of the transatlantic alliance.
“President Obama came into office declaring himself to be the Pacific president. It doesn’t mean he belittles the transatlantic relationship, but it’s hard to find any foreign policy expert above the age of 60 who hasn’t spent his entire career focused on the transatlantic relationship,” she said. “We’re now in a different era where people look at the other side of the Atlantic through another lens. They’ve forgotten history and have downgraded the value of that relationship.”
Smith said it would be a colossal blunder to assume that the Middle East and Asia form the two pillars of the U.S. national security agenda, while neglecting Europe.
Likewise, she said, “it would be a mistake for anyone to walk in the door assuming you can leave Europe to the Europeans. This relationship deserves our attention for many reasons. First and foremost, Europe is in crisis. Whether you’re looking at Brussels grappling with Brexit, questions of a resurgent Russia, the refugee crisis or a weak economy, as Americans we cannot allow the European project to fail. We are not members of the EU and we don't get to vote, but we have invested decades of political capital in this relationship and we have to see it succeed one way or another.”
Smith, who also directs the strategy and statecraft program at CNAS, urged the Obama administration to “revisit the Minsk protocol because it’s not working” to bring about a solution to the Ukraine crisis. She also called for “keeping the pressure to make sure countries increase their defense budgets” in the face of rising Russian aggression.