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Opinion

Biden's task in eastern Europe: Reassurance

After the decision to cancel missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic, the US needs to do more than damage control to soothe ties there.

By F. Stephen Larrabee, Christopher Chivvis / October 20, 2009



Washington

Vice President Joseph Biden's trip to eastern Europe this week provides an important opportunity to reassure Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania that the US is committed to their security.

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This reassurance is needed, especially in the wake of the Obama administration's controversial decision to cancel the deployment of missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic – Although President Obama's decision to scrap the Bush missile plan was the right one from a military and strategic point of view, the public rollout was less than ideal.

Polish and Czech leaders were informed of the decision only at the last second, making them feel like dispensable pawns in a broader US strategic game rather than the valued allies they have long been. This contributed to the misperception that the move was designed to placate Russia, and that eastern European interests would suffer as Washington attempted to reset relations with Moscow.

This perception is false. The decision was prompted by a shift in the nature of the Iranian threat. But it nevertheless damaged the US relationship with the region – a key relationship already in difficulty. Mr. Biden will therefore need to do more than just repair the damage done by the missile defense decision. He will also need to articulate a clear and coherent policy that explains where eastern Europe fits into broader US strategy toward Europe and Eurasia, and how the US commitment to security in central and eastern Europe will benefit, rather than suffer from, the resetting of US-Russian relations.

Public support in eastern Europe for the United States has plunged recently. According to a poll last month by the German Marshall Fund, the populations of Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia are much less enthusiastic about Mr. Obama and the US than are their western European counterparts. In the past, support for the US was much stronger in eastern Europe than in western Europe.

This unease has its roots in three closely related factors:

Russia's political and military resurgence. Having lived for long periods under Russian and Soviet domination, the central and eastern European countries are acutely sensitive to shifts in Russian power. They worry that Moscow's intimidation tactics and use of energy as a tool of foreign policy could result over time in a gradual erosion of their political independence.

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