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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.

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Concerns about NATO's political will. Many eastern European members increasingly question whether NATO really would defend their security in a crisis. These fears have been reinforced by western Europe's reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, which many regional observers interpreted as part of a broader tendency among European NATO members to accommodate Russia's bullying of its neighbors.

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General uncertainty about the future directions of US policy toward Europe. The eastern Europeans' unease is driven not so much by fear of a "new Yalta" as by a sense of benign neglect. They know the Obama administration is not about to sell them down the river for a few winks and nods from Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. But they worry that with the enlargement of NATO and the European Union accomplished, Washington has checked the eastern European "box" and moved on, assuming that the region will remain politically stable, economically prosperous, and pro-American in the future. To many eastern Europeans, this judgment seems at best premature.

In short, the vice president should go beyond mere damage control after the missile defense decision, and articulate a clear policy toward the region as a whole. This policy could be based on three basic tenets:

First, the US commitment to the security of Poland, Latvia, and Romania is and will remain as strong as the commitment to England, France, or Germany.

Second, an improvement of US-Russian relations will benefit all of Europe and will not be pursued at eastern European expense.

Third, the US firmly rejects the idea of spheres of influence, which remains a major goal of current Russian policy.

Announcing such a policy would not alleviate all the current unease in both central and eastern Europe. But it would significantly reduce it and give the current US policy toward the region renewed clarity and a sense of strategic purpose.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation and Christopher S. Chivvis is a political scientist there. RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.

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