A tale of two allies

The Polish lesson: America must give something in return for support.

This week, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich traveled to Washington to negotiate his country's participation in the US antiballistic missile-defense system. In a break with previous policy, the new center-right government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk has demanded fresh concessions – cash, Patriot missiles, and security guarantees – in exchange for hosting the bases on Polish soil.

The visit provided America with its first glimpse of a more assertive Poland, whose leaders are determined to drive a "hard bargain" for support of US policies. Warsaw's new mind-set is replicated across the capitals of the "New Europe," where officials are weary of what they see as Washington's failure to reward its allies for support in the Iraq war.

One notable exception to this trend is Romania. Like Poland, Romania sent troops to Iraq and has been disappointed by its exclusion from the US Visa Waiver Program. But unlike Poland, Romania has welcomed the construction of American military bases. Three features of US strategy toward Romania allowed it to succeed and could provide a blueprint for revitalizing relations with American allies worldwide.

First, in contrast to its dealings with Warsaw, Washington has worked to maintain a relationship with Bucharest on reciprocal footing. When Bucharest backed the US bid for exclusion from the International Criminal Court, Washington backed Romania's bid to join NATO.

When Bucharest granted America access to its airspace early in the Iraq war, Washington granted Romania its coveted designation as a "functional market economy." And when Bucharest cosponsored a US push for Iraqi sovereignty at the United Nations, Washington agreed to locate lucrative US bases on Romania's Black Sea coast.

In each instance, Romanian assistance was matched – usually within one or two months – by US backing for a specific Romanian interest. By contrast, for years the Poles have watched their leaders fly to Washington seeking help – on oil contracts, military aid, visas – only to come away empty-handed. Hence the desire for upfront perks in the talks this week on missile defense.

Second, Washington has been careful to maintain the appearance of an equal relationship with Romania. In negotiations over US bases, the Bush administration stressed that ultimate sovereignty for the installations would rest with Bucharest. As David McKiernan, America's top Army general in Europe, often told the press, "We are guests, tenants." Such humility was necessary, Washington knew, for Bucharest to convince its citizens they were partners rather than pawns of US policy.

Failure to take a similar tack with Poland has done much to fuel problems on missile defense. By failing to consult Warsaw and Prague before offering Russian observers access to the bases, Washington unwittingly tapped into a deep-seated regional fear of being "talked over" by the Great Powers. As a former Polish diplomat told me, the move confirmed that America views Poland "as a playground rather than a player."

Third, in its dealings with Romania, Washington has eschewed the temptation to try to operate today's alliances on the logic that guided alliances during the cold war. This holds that countries stand with America in pursuit of common values, over virtually limitless time horizons, and without any need for enticements. With Romania, Washington has pursued finite goals over a short time frame with frequent quid pro quos to incentivize cooperation.

Why not take a similar approach with Warsaw? A Pentagon official told me, "Romania is not likely to be as significant an ally as Poland over the long-term." That's right: current US thinking holds that it shouldn't reward its most valuable allies. In Washington's view, "mature" partners don't require coaxing – they support America for the sheer satisfaction of knowing they're friends with the sole remaining superpower.

The problem with this approach is that it no longer works. As the Pentagon discovered in meetings with Mr. Klich, Poland is not prepared to move an inch on missile defense until Washington provides offsets to justify hosting the system.

This is not, as some critics say, extortion; it is reciprocity – a feature of healthy, interest-based alliances from time immemorial. Like politicians anywhere, Poland's new leaders have to be able to show that risks undertaken on behalf of a foreign power bring tangible benefits to their own citizens. Failure to do so contributed to the fall from grace of Tusk's predecessor, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Britain's Tony Blair, and Australia's John Howard.

A breakthrough on missile defense is unlikely this year: Congress doesn't want to release the funds and Bush doesn't have enough political capital to change their minds. Whatever the next president does with the system, he or she should take a close look at which methods have worked – and which ones haven't – in America's recent interactions with allies. Keeping their support in the post-unipolar age will probably prove more valuable than 10 missile shields.

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