U.S. public diplomacy under the radar screen
BRATISLAVA -- The decision of the Bush administration to place missile shield installations in the Czech Republic and Poland was met with reluctance and even opposition by many in Central and Eastern Europe from the outset. Even in the two countries' policy communities it caused considerable turmoil, as advocates of the missile shield risked a great deal of political capital to convince the many opponents of the plan. U.S. diplomacy, for its part, largely failed to provide convincing arguments as to why this project had to be done bilaterally rather than within the NATO framework; moreover, it was unable to cool down the harsh reactions, even threats, emanating from Moscow.
In spite of these dilemmas and the political price involved, governing elites in Prague and Warsaw managed to prepare the ground for hosting U.S. military installations in both countries. Shortly after Obama's arrival at the White House, however, it became clear that one of the key strategic foreign policy goals of the new administration would be to ease tensions in U.S.-Russia relations. Within this context, the building of American military installations in Central Europe was one of the most neuralgic points. When the Obama Administration announced on September 17 that it was calling off plans for land-based missile defense in Europe, it sparked off a lively debate, not just in the Czech Republic and Poland, but across all of Central Europe. The central issue was not so much the military installations but uncertainty about U.S. policy towards the region. In truth, U.S. public diplomacy had failed for the second time: the first time, when the plans were announced; and the second time when the project was terminated, causing growing concern among elites as well as publics in our region. A group of public intellectuals and former politicians from the new EU and NATO countries (this author among them) had voiced these concerns earlier this summer in an open letter to the Obama administration.
The German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Trends survey, published September 9, also clearly shows Central and East European concerns about U.S. policy under Obama. In short, the United States must do a better job at formulating and communicating its policies toward Central and Eastern Europe. Otherwise, it risks losing the pro-Atlantic sympathies of Central Europeans, and its public diplomacy will fail for a third time. I believe that the upcoming commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain provides an opportunity for clear signals by a still very popular U.S. President to Central and Eastern Europe. In so doing, he can rely on two political personalities that command much respect in Central and Eastern Europe: Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.