The United States no longer considers relations with Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) a top priority. This was one of the recurring themes at the Young Leaders Dialogue with America conference last week in Prague.
Irena Kalhousova, chief analyst at Prague’s Security Studies Institute, lamented that President Barack Obama ignores CEE and cast doubt on the certainty of transatlantic partnership. Indeed, the Administration’s brazen cancellation of the third site missile defense program last year, with radar stations in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland, was “a slap in the face for those who actually believed a key agreement with Washington was worth the paper it was written on.” Though the radar stations were unpopular with the Czech public, many Czech parliamentarians who vigorously advocated for the stations suffered at the polls the following election.
Many believe that the withdrawal of the missile defense capabilities was part of the U.S. effort to reset relations with Russia and a sign that the new Administration cares little about the sentiments of CEE allies. Unfortunately, little can be said in defense of the Administration’s actions. Not only did the missile defense debacle call into question America’s loyalty, but other policies, such as the expansion of the Visa Waiver Program, have excelled at a snail’s pace. The White House also committed a series of public diplomacy blunders when Obama failed to appropriately acknowledge several critical World War II anniversary dates as well as the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. These missteps have not passed without notice.
Kalhousova admitted that while CEE countries are connected to the U.S. through a critical history, powerhouses like China have a lot more to bring to the table in terms of economic incentive. She further suggested that CEE have more to gain by working closer with the European Union than by relying on the U.S. as its closest ally. If countries like Poland and the Czech Republic earn little satisfaction from its friend across the pond, closer ties with Brussels is an obvious alternative.
Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale flatly dismissed concerns about Obama Administration’s disinterest in CEE allies, citing President Obama’s two visits to the Czech Republic. But simply paying a visit to the Czech Republic is quite different from actually caring about relations with its government and people. After all, during President Obama’s last trip to the Czech Republic, he further rekindled relations between the U.S. and Russia by signing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
One could argue that the very purpose of the State Department–sponsored YLDA conference was a sign that the Obama Administration does care about its friends in CEE. If so, this was a good opportunity for McHale to take the voiced concerns to heart and not take New Europe for granted.