U.S. Relations With Central Europe

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum, Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
Washington, DC
September 20, 2012

As prepared

Thank you, Wess, for that kind introduction. Let me take this opportunity to express my appreciation to you and your CEPA colleagues for the important work that you’re doing in thinking carefully about U.S. relations with Central Europe, strengthening bonds between our countries, and engaging with policy-makers about regional interests and concerns. I’m delighted to be here today in order to help launch this conference by discussing how the Administration views our essential relationship with Central Europe.

Over the last week, the world has watched terrible images from the Middle East and North Africa. We have seen pictures of burned embassies and angry protesters. And at the State Department, we have mourned the loss of valued colleagues. These tragic incidents serve as all too painful reminders that democratic transition is not easy and the road to democracy does not advance along a straight line. Across the Administration, my colleagues and I have been deeply touched by the outpouring of sympathy from around the world – including by many European leaders who have expressed their condolences and condemnation of the attacks. Many also conveyed their resolve to redouble our joint efforts at helping fulfill the democratic promise of the Arab Spring and taking steps to minimize the risk of future violence.

Amidst the current headlines from Libya to Syria, it is all too easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago that the revolutionary pictures filling our television screens were not from the Middle East but from Europe. From the freedom fighters in Hungary who laid down their lives in 1956 to the brave civil society activists who launched the Prague Spring twelve years later. From the workers who shut down the shipyards of Gdansk in 1980 to the citizens of Romania who overthrew a ruthless dictatorship a decade after that. People across Central Europe have struggled for governments that respond to the needs of their people; for more tolerant societies, built on respect and dignity; for the freedom to think, to believe, and to pursue their dreams. Those dreams – and for many years they were only dreams – have now been realized within a strong Euro-Atlantic alliance, firmly anchored within NATO and the European Union. Central Europe’s experience can serve as a reminder to those struggling for freedom across the Middle East today that while the process of democratization is never quick or easy – or for that matter complete – it can advance and succeed even in the face of repeated setbacks.

The United States is proud to have supported the aspirations and struggles of Central Europeans. Over the last two decades, we have assisted their transition from communist regimes to modern democracies – investing over $4.8 billion in assistance to ten countries across the region. And even after they “graduated” from U.S. development assistance upon their accession to the EU, we have continued to support defense modernization through our security assistance – enabling these countries to have advanced and inter-operable capabilities so they can partner with the U.S. in responding to our shared security concerns.

As President Obama said on the eve of the NATO Summit in Strasbourg-Kehl, “This shared history gives us hope – but it must not give us rest. This generation cannot stand still.” Just consider the immense challenges we are confronting: an economic crisis that has hurt people on both sides of the Atlantic, the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, and a new wave of democratic reform and unrest across the Middle East and North Africa.

Some in Central Europe may look at these problems and conclude that the U.S. is no longer focused on their part of the world. But that conclusion misses an essential point. The unique relationship we had with Central Europe in the immediate post-Cold War period has evolved into a 21st century partnership that is based not only on the shared values and interests that have long joined us together, but also on the shared responsibilities that we now face together as allies. It is precisely because of these global challenges and the growing willingness and capacity of Central Europe to meet them with us that we need and value our partnership more than ever. And so in America, we no longer think in terms of what we can do for Central Europe but rather of what we can do with Central Europe.

Let me address several areas in which we are building this relationship.

First and foremost, the United States and Central Europe are bound together by shared values and a common commitment to protect those values — whenever and wherever they are challenged. NATO remains the bedrock of that commitment. As President Obama has said, there are no old members, there are no new members, there are just members. We remain inextricably linked by our unwavering commitment to Article 5, according to which an attack on one is an attack on all.

That political truth is reflected in practical terms. Although fiscal and strategic realities compel the United States to alter our global force posture, our commitment to European security and stability remains rock solid. While this does not equate as directly to large numbers of U.S. troops as in the past, we remain committed to maintaining a robust force presence in Europe. After global reposturing is complete, there will still be more American forces permanently stationed in Europe than anywhere else in the world other than the continental United States.

Furthermore, the restructuring does not signal a change in our perception of NATO’s value or its Article 5 guarantee. We remain committed to enhancing Allied interoperability and partner capacity in order to ensure that NATO remains ready to deter and address threats to our common security. That is why we have committed to identifying a U.S.-based brigade to participate in the NATO Response Force and to regularly rotate a battalion-sized task force to Germany for exercises and training. We are taking other steps to modernize Article 5, such as the establishment of a U.S. aviation detachment in Poland, missile defense deployments, and updated NATO planning efforts for all Alliance members.

This Administration’s approach to missile defense further demonstrates our commitment to European security. In the 20th century, NATO successfully prepared to defend Allied territory against what was then a very real Soviet challenge. Today, the proliferation of ballistic missiles outside of Europe poses a real and growing threat to the Alliance. The European Phased Adaptive Approach is designed to meet this threat with a proven technology that will cover more of Europe – including Central Europe – and cover it more effectively than the previously proposed system. We welcome the willingness of many of our allies to host components of this system, including Romania and Poland.

Another example of our commitment to the collective security is Baltic Air Policing, a NATO mission that enables the continuous presence of Allied fighter jets to patrol Baltic airspace. This example of ‘smart defense’, which was highlighted at the NATO Summit in Chicago last spring, allows allies to allocate their resources more effectively. Since 2004, Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic – as well as numerous other NATO allies – have contributed aircraft and personnel in support of this mission.

In addition to preparing for possible threats, we are together bearing heavy responsibilities for ongoing conflicts. Our sons and daughters are serving side by side across the globe, with Central Europeans living up to their commitments as allies by becoming providers rather than consumers of security. Central Europeans are making robust contributions to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, with all ten countries currently deploying a combined total of over 6500 troops. They are contributing nearly 800 troops to KFOR in Kosovo. In addition, Bulgaria and Romania deployed naval assets to help enforce the NATO-led arms embargo against Libya.

Central Europe has also stepped up in support of our efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. Last year, the Hungarian government served as our protecting power in Libya. From February to July of this year, Poland served as our protecting power in Syria. The Polish Embassy was instrumental in helping to retrieve and repatriate the remains of American journalist Marie Colvin from a besieged neighborhood in Homs. Since August, the Czech Republic has taken over this role. We are grateful to all these allies for that important work.

Just as we and Central Europe are linked militarily, so too are we connected economically. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. has supported efforts to stimulate Central Europe’s economy. In the early 1990s, we provided over $560 million to establish enterprise funds to promote sustained economic growth in countries that were transitioning from centrally-planned to market-based economies. The funds encouraged institutional reforms, produced results in banking and financial markets, and stimulated direct investment. The funds have also generated substantial income; they will provide over $200 million to the U.S. Treasury and an additional $865 million to establish legacy foundations that continue supporting ongoing reforms.

Given our sustained commitment to strong Central European economies, the U.S. worked with the IMF and World Bank to ensure countries received international support when they needed it most. While some countries have borne the brunt of the crisis, we have been heartened to see how others have successfully weathered the global recession and put their economies on the road to recovery. We have also seen slow returns to modest growth, particularly in Poland with one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe in recent years. By working together, we can all learn lessons from this crisis that will help us lay the foundation for renewed growth and prosperity.

Another issue we must continue to address together is energy security. The countries of Central Europe are – by history, geography and necessity – well placed to lead Europe in this effort. Cooperation will enable us to increase our mutual security and prosperity; underpin stable, reliable and transparent global energy markets; and coordinate our regulatory regimes and research programs to advance our climate change goals and speed the deployment of clean and efficient energy technologies. In support of these goals, the Administration launched the U.S.-EU Energy Council at the ministerial level. We have also engaged with Central Europe through the former Special Envoy for European Energy and the newly established Energy Bureau at the State Department. Our dialogue has been significantly deepened through consultation in these bilateral and multilateral channels.

A further component of our bilateral economic relationship is the strength of our people-to-people ties. In addition to robust exchange programs with Central Europe, a majority of these countries enjoy visa-free travel to the United States. This Administration has prioritized efforts to bring the rest of Central Europe into the Visa Waiver Program, starting with Poland. President Obama has strongly endorsed proposed bipartisan legislation aimed at accomplishing this goal. Through this effort we hope to broaden the basis of the Visa Waiver Program and remove barriers to the full enjoyment of new economic opportunities, while at the same time enhancing secure travel.

Let me now take a moment to discuss our efforts to support democracy, which we are doing in partnership with Central European allies who share our democratic values. The example these countries set 20 years ago inspired the world. The leadership they exert over the next 20 years can change that world, as they help to strengthen fledgling democracies in their own backyard while also supporting those further afield who are struggling to realize and consolidate democratic gains.

The countries of Central Europe have been eager to collaborate with us in expanding the zone of democracy, prosperity and stability to the former Soviet Union. Since 1990 the U.S. has provided approximately $6.2 billion in assistance to Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus to promote democratic and economic reform, health, education, and regional security. Each of these countries presents unique challenges. As I said last night in my remarks to the Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations, Ukraine has enormous potential but its economic development has been hampered by barriers to trade and investment. Furthermore, its European integration efforts are on hold because of politically motivated prosecutions of opposition leaders. Moldova continues to have the lowest per capita GDP in Europe, but it is making progress on political and economic reforms needed for closer ties with the EU. Belarus remains an outlier in the region due to the government’s brutal suppression of human rights. But we continue our efforts to support to Belarusian civil society even while we have imposed sanctions on regime leaders.

In addition to our bilateral assistance, we coordinate closely with the European Union in support of its Eastern Partnership program. Central Europe has taken a leading role in the EU’s efforts to promote political and economic development in Eurasia.

About a year ago, the U.S. decided to expand our partnership with emerging donor governments in Central Europe with the creation of the “Emerging Donors Challenge Fund.” This fund serves as an incentive to identify and then co-fund assistance projects. To date, the U.S. is co-financing 23 projects (valued at $6 million with a one-to-one cost share) with Central European partners in the areas of rule of law, democracy, free media, civil society and economic growth in key countries in Eurasia and the Western Balkans.

We have also supported individual initiatives, such as the LEND Network launched in July by Secretary Clinton and Estonian Foreign Minister Paet, that facilitates real-time voice, video, and text communication between leaders who have guided successful democratic transitions and their counterparts in new democracies.

In addition, Central European countries are seeking to share their experiences and expertise beyond Europe’s borders. For example, Slovakia is co-chairing with the Netherlands the Community of Democracies Task Force on Tunisia. Poland invited members of Tunisia’s civil society to observe its October 2011 parliamentary elections, while Estonia and USAID are collaborating to bring e-governance to Tunisia. And Bulgaria hosted 40 representatives of Syrian opposition groups last May to help facilitate their coordination efforts.

Our ability to work together with Central Europe to promote democratic transitions abroad is rooted in our shared commitment to democratic values at home. Because our alliance is based on these shared values, we have not shied away from reminding our partners of their own obligation to promote and protect democratic principles.

In Hungary, we have engaged in vigorous discussions about troubling efforts to weaken institutional checks-and-balances within the government, the cumbersome and politicized registration process for recognizing religions, and the importance of preserving the integrity and independence of the judiciary and free press. We are encouraged that Hungary continues to consult on these issues with the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, a process that has already led to some positive changes. We also urge the Hungarian government to have a dialogue on these matters with civil society, as we believe that a strong democracy depends on a transparent and inclusive political process.

In Romania, we have expressed our concerns about threats to democratic institutions and the independence of the judiciary. We were particularly concerned about the conduct of the referendum on impeaching the President, as the government appeared to change the rules during the process and there were credible allegations of voter fraud and attempts to coerce the Constitutional Court. We were pleased to see the government uphold its commitment to respect the Court’s rulings. We are hopeful that Romania will emerge from this crisis with a renewed dedication to preserving the strength and independence of its democratic institutions.

In conclusion, these are clearly challenging times. The events of last week demonstrate and underscore our need for strong, capable and democratic partners who can help us address these challenges. The countries of Central Europe have demonstrated repeatedly that they are ready, willing and able to play that role. They are contributing militarily, economically and politically to demands at home and abroad. And the U.S. consults regularly with our Central European allies in bilateral and multilateral fora about our collective vision for joint action. The strength of our relationship is testament to bipartisan policy over the last several decades that has invested in these countries’ development and nurtured the ties that bind us. Together, we can continue the hard work of completing the ‘unfinished business’ in Europe’s east and responding to unfolding challenges in the wider world.


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