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Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
CSIS Conference: The United States and Central Europe Converging or Diverging Strategic Interests?
Washington, DC
November 4, 2009


Janusz, thank you very much for inviting me here and for putting this on, together with Slawomir and the Polish Institute for International Affairs. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here. I regret I missed the opening panels which looked very interesting. I actually spent my morning at the U.S.-EU Summit which was also relevant for much of the discussions here, not least because of the degree to which we talked about Central and Eastern Europe and the Eastern partnership, and for the past hour, the launch of the U.S.-EU Energy Council, which I think is also relevant for our discussions today.

I’ve been a long admirer of the CSIS Europe program and Central Europe program with which I have worked extensively in the past. In deed I remember a year or so ago being at this very podium, then speaking about Senator Obama’s view of Europe and Central and Eastern Europe, and I’m delighted to be back now, less than a year into the new administration, to talk about our perspectives and accomplishments and the challenges that we face together in this part of the world.

This is also a timely conference, because Central and Eastern Europe is in the spotlight this fall. Not only because of the many policy issues at the forefront which I hope to discuss including Russia and missile defense and NATO and the global financial crisis, but it’s also in the spotlight because this year, of course, marks the 20th Anniversary of the revolutions that toppled dictatorial regimes in the region, and communism. As I believe you know, this Sunday Secretary Clinton will travel to Berlin for the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, to join other European leaders to celebrate that anniversary which set off such a positive domino effect throughout Central and Eastern Europe, liberating tens of millions of people.

These events deserve to be recalled, not just to honor and celebrate those who took part in them, but also to learn the lessons about how to get rid of ideology and authoritarianism and to promote democracy, stability and prosperity -- a set of issues that is, alas, all too relevant for many other parts of the world today.

The remarks I was asked to give are about U.S. perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe, and that is what I will do. But I would like to just make one point about the overall focus of this conference which is the question of whether U.S. and Central and Eastern Europe strategic interests are converging or diverging. And let me say, and I particularly want to do so because I think it challenges some of the conventional wisdom and perhaps some of the views that were expressed this morning here, that I actually think U.S. and Central European interests are converging and not diverging.

The main reason I say that is actually a consequence of the point to the reference I just made to 20 years ago and what has happened in Central and Eastern Europe since. That is to say that the democratic revolutions that took place in Central and Eastern Europe 20 years ago put that region on a path towards Europe and the West in terms of its values and institutions and economies and interests, and these countries are now very far along that path.

In other words, we see increasingly Central and Eastern European countries the same way we see Western European countries which is to say stable prosperous democracies with which we cooperate extensively on a whole range of global interests.

When you think about Central and Eastern Europe’s strategic interests, in other words, there are some particular regional interests, but what are the main ones? They include, just as our own, coping with the international financial crisis, succeeding in Afghanistan where we’re fighting together, preventing climate change, improving energy security, helping to develop a democratic and non-threatening Russia, dealing with immigration. These are the questions the United States deals with; these are the questions Western Europe deals with; and these are the questions more and more Central and Eastern Europe deals with.

Obviously, and I want to make this clear, we are sensitive to Central and Eastern Europe’s enduring particular interests. Historical legacies do not quickly disappear and geography does not change. Central Europeans still face security threats that, and I think for understandable reasons, are felt with more intensity than in the distant United States. Countries in Eastern Europe have been subject to energy cutoffs, cyber attacks, political pressure, and in the case of Georgia the use of disproportionate military force by a large neighbor. That’s all clear.

But my point is, these are not causes for a divergence in interests between Central and Eastern Europe and the United States because the United States strongly shares Central and Eastern Europe’s interest in security from such threats and risks. That’s not only because of the rock solid Article 5 commitment that the United States has with some of these countries, but out of our own interests. History has taught the United States that security risks in Central Europe are a threat to all of Europe, and that the security of all of Europe is a vital national interest of the United States. So I see no divergence between Central and Eastern Europe and the United States when it comes to keeping the region safe from outside threats, whether they be political, military, economic or in the area of energy security.

So that’s a broad overall point I wanted to begin with. What I’d like to do now is turn to some of the particular policy issues that I think are relevant to the region and offer our, offer the Obama administration’s perspective on some of them.

I’d like to start with Russia. I’d like to start with the President’s thinking on Russia and what we’re trying to do in a policy sense on Russia in ways that I think are relevant to the region.

The President explained early on in the administration and the Vice President articulated it publicly early on at the Munich Security Conference, the way that we’re thinking about Russia and relations with Russia. That is to say what we inherited was a poor and deteriorating relationship with Russia that we think served nobody. And President Obama thought it should be possible to pursue concrete cooperation with Russia in areas where we have common interests, and there are some; while at the same time agreeing to disagree about other issues where we have different interests, and without sacrificing any of our important principles or our friends. And that is what the President announced we would try to do as part of his foreign policy. It’s what the Vice President talked about in Munich. And it’s what we’ve been trying to do ever since.

So there was a reset with Russia announced, but it came with the corollaries that were quite clear as well, that we didn’t accept the notion of privileged spheres of influence within Europe; that we felt that democracies in Europe should have the right to join the security alliances of their choosing. And that we would not recognize break-away regions like South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The President’s summit in Moscow in July I think demonstrated how this can work. There were some concrete achievements. The Presidents agreed on the START follow-on framework. They agreed on an Afghanistan lethal transit arrangement, which is just the sort of concrete agreement in areas of common interest that we were talking about -- benefits to the United States, because we have more diverse supply routes to Afghanistan, it saves us potentially a lot of money, depending on how many flights there are to Afghanistan, we could save over $100 million -- and there was no tradeoff to get it, because both countries have a common interest in succeeding.

Military to military cooperation was reestablished to try to overcome some of the mistrust. And a Bilateral Presidential Commission was launched with 17 sub-areas ranging from the environment to culture to allow us to pursue these common interests more institutionally. And the two countries agreed on a joint threat assessment regarding the ballistic missile threat including from countries like Iran and North Korea.

So all of that was in the basket of things where we think we can work together, but at the same time the President made crystal clear, both publicly and in his private meetings, that our core principles still held, and that we had some differences on issues like NATO enlargement and on Georgia and on democracy and human rights which he talked about in his speech at the New Economic School and in his private meetings with NGOs, civil society, and opposition leaders.

Secretary Clinton, as you know, was in Moscow two weeks ago and did the same thing. Pursued common interests in areas where we have some and we want to cooperate -- like Iran, Afghanistan, and START, nuclear non-proliferation; but at the same time making clear our differences and our determination to uphold our principles.

So in short, some have questioned whether this pursuit of a reset with Russia is a sign of a diverging strategic interest with Central Europe. I think not. I think a more open and trusting relationship with Russia where possible and the pursuit of common interests where possible is actually in the interest of both the United States and Central Europe.

Let me offer a couple of thoughts on the issue of missile defense, which has also, I know, been a great focus of people in the region. And I specifically want to address this issue because I think there has been a significant amount of misunderstanding about it, especially when we saw, after the Obama administration announced its plans about how to pursue missile defense, headlines about sellouts or betrayal. And there’s still talk, frankly, and no doubt there was some of it this morning, I’ll just venture a guess, from critics of the administration suggesting that somehow the missile defense plan was designed to appease Russia and somehow sold out Central and European interests in the name of a reset with Russia.

I’ll be blunt about this. I think that line of thinking is simply wrong. We’ve had a chance to explain the missile defense approach. We’ve had a chance to explain it publicly and to our friends in the region. I actually think that understanding of what we are doing is growing, and we’re getting to the point that we wanted to get to which is people understanding that we think we have a better plan to protect Americans and Europeans from the growing threat from nuclear proliferation and ballistic missiles. But also a better plan to enhance and encourage strategic cooperation with our Central and East European partners. And that’s the part of it that I think there has been a lot of misunderstanding about.

Again, I think in the time since the announcement we’ve had plenty of opportunity to explain this, to underscore that the factors driving this had to do with the intelligence. The realization that Iran was moving forward very quickly on short and medium range ballistic missiles which posed a threat already to Europe, including Southeastern Europe and soon to Central Europe and then soon thereafter to Western Europe, and that to us it didn’t make a lot of sense to deploy ten interceptors against ICBMs that didn’t exist while leaving these countries vulnerable to a threat from dozens or hundreds of short and medium range missiles that do exist and will soon exist in much greater numbers.

So that was the critique of the old plan, and the reason for exploration of a different one which was supplemented by technological developments, namely success in the development of the Standard Missile 3 technology which is what the new phased adaptive approach is going to be based on, in phases that will lead ultimately by 2020 to a very significant capability to deal with both short, medium, and longer range threats. Then finally, in addition to intelligence and technology, it was a policy decision. We wanted to cover all of Europe and we wanted to do it together with NATO, rather than simply bilaterally. And that is what we’re working towards, as well.

So frankly, we think it’s a better plan on every level to defend Americans, deployed American forces and our allies in Europe.

As for the speculation on Russia, of which there has been a lot, some have criticized us for doing it for Russia, some have criticized us for not doing so, for not trying to negotiate or bargain something. On that I would simply say the reality is that Russia was an ancillary point to the points that I just made.

The decision was made about how to best protect America, its allies and its forward deployed troops, and the reality is we didn’t know how Russia would respond. It was always an open question whether Russia would decide that this was more in their interests than the previous plan. They might have decided otherwise. We had no control over that. As it happens, they have been largely positive about it, which is also okay. Just because the Russians aren’t criticizing it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad plan.

Let me also reinforce the point about cooperation with Central and Eastern European allies, because I’ve had conversations with some friends in Central and Eastern Europe who said, actually prior to our decision, who were saying -- we actually don’t believe in missile defense, we don’t think it’s necessary, we don’t think it will work, but we really want you to go ahead with the plans with Poland and the Czech Republic -- because they wanted strategic cooperation with the United States which is fair enough.

But the point I want to make here is, in the new plan we think we have just such strategic cooperation with our partners in Central and Eastern Europe. Much of the focus has been on Poland where the decision was made, of course, not to pursue the previous agreement on ground-based interceptors. But think about the current agreement or what is on offer from the Obama administration. It was an offer, a right of first refusal to Poland for whose cooperation we were grateful in the previous plan, to deploy SM-3s if it so chose. It was an agreement to move forward with the Patriot anti-air system, indeed a more robust version than had been previously on offer, and a decision to move forward with all of the strategic dialogue and defense cooperation groups that the Bush administration had agreed with Poland in the final year.

So if someone can explain to me how moving forward in basing missile defense interceptors, moving forward with all sorts of strategic dialogues, and moving forward on Patriots is somehow walking back from strategic cooperation, I would like to hear it because we, in fact, think it’s moving in the opposite direction.

We have also with the Czech Republic engaged in serious discussions about how they might be involved in the new plan and about moving forward with our strategic and defense dialogue with the Czech Republic. And finally, the new plan will offer other opportunities for Central and Eastern European countries and all NATO allies to be involved in what will be a much more NATO-ized missile defense plan.

In short, far from abandoning Central and Eastern Europe, this phased adaptive approach to missile defense should be seen as a sign of enduring commitment.

Let me say a word about our perspective on NATO and how it relates to the region.

We think that NATO enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe has been a historic achievement of democratic and republican administrations since the end of the Cold War. I’m proud to have been involved in that process earlier in the Clinton administration and to continue the process in the Obama administration.

In 1999 we of course welcomed in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to the alliance. Since then, under the Bush administration, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, have all come in. Croatia and Albania in 2009. This really is a historic set of achievements that has contributed to stability and prosperity throughout the region, and we believe that the door to NATO enlargement must remain open.

Applicants need to meet demanding criteria, but if they do they should be free to fulfill their EuroAtlantic aspirations just like those who preceded them.

There’s also the issue of NATO’s strategic concept, which of course is being revised this year for the first time in ten years. There’s a great debate about whether the focus should be on Article 5 or if it should be on global engagement or on new threats. Our answer to that question is simple. It needs to be all of the above. It’s not a choice between focus on Article 5 or focus on global engagement. Obviously Afghanistan is important. The alliance is at war. We’re at war there together. There are more than 30,000 European troops as part of ISAF, including many troops who are making important contributions from Central and Eastern Europe. That is a core part of what NATO does in the 21st Century. But that doesn’t mean that Article 5 doesn’t remain central and we need to make that clear in the strategic concept and in the reality of what we do on the ground.

President Obama has said that NATO must have contingency plans in place to deal with new threats wherever they come from, and that task needs to be reflected in the strategic concept and that’s what we’re seeking to do as it is revised.

Let me just mention a final issue because I want to make sure we have plenty of time for your questions and comments, which is the wider Central and Eastern Europe neighborhood.

I mentioned that this morning and yesterday in the extensive discussions as part of the U.S.-EU Summit with the Vice President, the President, and today at the State Department, many of these issues were discussed. Stability in Ukraine, prospects of engagement with Belarus, the hope to integrate the Balkans into EuroAtlantic institutions, our desire to bring stability to the Caucasus, and in the course of these discussions we expressed our very strong support for the EU’s Eastern Partnership which is in many ways a Central and Eastern European brain child with the Czechs, the Poles, and together with the Swedish presidency providing resources and engagement with Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan. We strongly support this. It is a reflection of a process that we think needs to move forward.

The extension of democracy and stability to Central and Eastern Europe, as I said previously, was a huge bipartisan success over the past 20 years, but that process is not yet complete. We look forward to working with our partners in Central and Eastern Europe and throughout the EU to bring those countries in the Balkans and in the Eastern Partnership closer to EuroAtlantic institutions if they so choose.

There are many other issues that we could address. I haven’t said much about the economic crisis that we have been working together with our partners to deal with and the U.S. has contributed to tackling through our stimulus plan and support for international financial institutions. We could and should talk about energy security which is another central concern of the countries in the region, and I’m happy to discuss any of these in the discussion period.

But here in conclusion I would just say that I think and I hope that the perspectives I have offered on the issues I have addressed -- Russia, missile defense, NATO, the neighborhood -- underscores my initial point which is that U.S. and Central European strategic interests are deeply entwined and converging.

Thank you very much. I look forward to your questions.

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