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A Letter to Obama

Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and a long list of other former leaders of Eastern European states have penned an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama expressing their fears over what kinds of sacrifices to their sovereignty might come along with Washington’s effort to improve relations with Russia.  Full text of the letter below from Gazeta Wyborcza, news coverage from Associated Press and Reuters.

An Open Letter to the Obama Administration from Central and Eastern Europe

by Valdas Adamkus, Martin Butora, Emil Constantinescu, Pavol Demes, Lubos Dobrovsky, Matyas Eorsi, Istvan Gyarmati, Vaclav Havel, Rastislav Kacer, Sandra Kalniete, Karel Schwarzenberg, Michal Kovac, Ivan Krastev, Alexander Kwasniewski, Mart Laar, Kadri Liik, Janos Martonyi. Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Adam Rotfeld, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Alexandr Vondra, Lech Walesa.

We have written this letter because, as Central and Eastern European (CEE) intellectuals and former policymakers, we care deeply about the future of the transatlantic relationship as well as the future quality of relations between the United States and the countries of our region. We write in our personal capacity as individuals who are friends and allies of the United States as well as committed Europeans.

Our nations are deeply indebted to the United States. Many of us know firsthand how important your support for our freedom and independence was during the dark Cold War years. U.S. engagement and support was essential for the success of our democratic transitions after the Iron Curtain fell twenty years ago. Without Washington’s vision and leadership, it is doubtful that we would be in NATO and even the EU today.


We have worked to reciprocate and make this relationship a two-waystreet. We are Atlanticist voices within NATO and the EU. Our nationshave been engaged alongside the United States in the Balkans, Iraq, andtoday in Afghanistan. While our contribution may at times seem modestcompared to your own, it is significant when measured as a percentageof our population and GDP. Having benefited from your support forliberal democracy and liberal values in the past, we have been amongyour strongest supporters when it comes to promoting democracy andhuman rights around the world.

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, however, we see thatCentral and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart ofAmerican foreign policy. As the new Obama Administration sets itsforeign-policy priorities, our region is one part of the world thatAmericans have largely stopped worrying about. Indeed, at times we havethe impression that U.S. policy was so successful that many Americanofficials have now concluded that our region is fixed once and for alland that they could “check the box” and move on to other more pressingstrategic issues. Relations have been so close that many on both sidesassume that the region’s transatlantic orientation, as well as itsstability and prosperity, would last forever.

That view is premature. All is not well either in our region or inthe transatlantic relationship. Central and Eastern Europe is at apolitical crossroads and today there is a growing sense of nervousnessin the region. The global economic crisis is impacting on our regionand, as elsewhere, runs the risk that our societies will look inwardand be less engaged with the outside world. At the same time, stormclouds are starting to gather on the foreign policy horizon. Like you,we await the results of the EU Commission’s investigation on theorigins of the Russo-Georgian war. But the political impact of that waron the region has already been felt. Many countries were deeplydisturbed to see the Atlantic alliance stand by as Russia violated thecore principles of the Helsinki Final Act, the Charter of Paris, andthe territorial integrity of a country that was a member of NATO’sPartnership for Peace and the Euroatlantic Partnership Council -all inthe name of defending a sphere of influence on its borders.

Despite the efforts and significant contribution of the new members,NATO today seems weaker than when we joined. In many of our countriesit is perceived as less and less relevant – and we feel it. Although weare full members, people question whether NATO would be willing andable to come to our defense in some future crises. Europe’s dependenceon Russian energy also creates concern about the cohesion of theAlliance. President Obama’s remark at the recent NATO summit on theneed to provide credible defense plans for all Alliance members waswelcome, but not sufficient to allay fears about the Alliance´s defensereadiness. Our ability to continue to sustain public support at homefor our contributions to Alliance missions abroad also depends on usbeing able to show that our own security concerns are being addressedin NATO and close cooperation with the United States

We must also recognize that America’s popularity and influence havefallen in many of our countries as well. Public opinions polls,including the German Marshall Fund’s own Transatlantic Trends survey,show that our region has not been immune to the wave of criticism andanti-Americanism that has swept Europe in recent years and which led toa collapse in sympathy and support for the United States during theBush years. Some leaders in the region have paid a political price fortheir support of the unpopular war in Iraq. In the future they may bemore careful in taking political risks to support the United States. Webelieve that the onset of a new Administration has created a newopening to reverse this trend but it will take time and work on bothsides to make up for what we have lost.

In many ways the EU has become the major factor and institution inour lives. To many people it seems more relevant and important todaythan the link to the United States. To some degree it is a logicaloutcome of the integration of Central and Eastern Europe into the EU.Our leaders and officials spend much more time in EU meetings than inconsultations with Washington, where they often struggle to attractattention or make our voices heard. The region’s deeper integration inthe EU is of course welcome and should not necessarily lead to aweakening of the transatlantic relationship. The hope was thatintegration of Central and Eastern Europe into the EU would actuallystrengthen the strategic cooperation between Europe and America.

However, there is a danger that instead of being a pro-Atlanticvoice in the EU, support for a more global partnership with Washingtonin the region might wane over time. The region does not have thetradition of assuming a more global role. Some items on thetransatlantic agenda, such as climate change, do not resonate in theCentral and Eastern European publics to the same extent as they do inWestern Europe.

Leadership change is also coming in Central and Eastern Europe. Nextto those, there are fewer and fewer leaders who emerged from therevolutions of 1989 who experienced Washington’s key role in securingour democratic transition and anchoring our countries in NATO and EU. Anew generation of leaders is emerging who do not have these memoriesand follow a more “realistic” policy. At the same time, the formerCommunist elites, whose insistence on political and economic powersignificantly contributed to the crises in many CEE countries,gradually disappear from the political scene. The current political andeconomic turmoil and the fallout from the global economic crisisprovide additional opportunities for the forces of nationalism,extremism, populism, and anti-Semitism across the continent but also insome our countries.

This means that the United States is likely to lose many of itstraditional interlocutors in the region. The new elites replacing themmay not share the idealism – or have the same relationship to theUnited States – as the generation who led the democratic transition.They may be more calculating in their support of the United States aswell as more parochial in their world view. And in Washington a similartransition is taking place as many of the leaders and personalities wehave worked with and relied on are also leaving politics.

And then there is the issue of how to deal with Russia. Our hopesthat relations with Russia would improve and that Moscow would finallyfully accept our complete sovereignty and independence after joiningNATO and the EU have not been fulfilled. Instead, Russia is back as arevisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-centurytactics and methods. At a global level, Russia has become, on mostissues, a status-quo power. But at a regional level and vis-a-vis ournations, it increasingly acts as a revisionist one. It challenges ourclaims to our own historical experiences. It asserts a privilegedposition in determining our security choices. It uses overt and covertmeans of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades andpolitically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation inorder to advance its interests and to challenge the transatlanticorientation of Central and Eastern Europe.

We welcome the “reset” of the American-Russian relations. As thecountries living closest to Russia, obviously nobody has a greaterinterest in the development of the democracy in Russia and betterrelations between Moscow and the West than we do. But there is alsonervousness in our capitals. We want to ensure that too narrow anunderstanding of Western interests does not lead to the wrongconcessions to Russia. Today the concern is, for example, that theUnited States and the major European powers might embrace the Medvedevplan for a “Concert of Powers” to replace the continent’s existing,value-based security structure. The danger is that Russia’s creepingintimidation and influence-peddling in the region could over time leadto a de facto neutralization of the region. There are differing viewswithin the region when it comes to Moscow’s new policies. But there isa shared view that the full engagement of the United States is needed.

Many in the region are looking with hope to the Obama Administrationto restore the Atlantic relationship as a moral compass for theirdomestic as well as foreign policies. A strong commitment to commonliberal democratic values is essential to our countries. We know fromour own historical experience the difference between when the UnitedStates stood up for its liberal democratic values and when it did not.Our region suffered when the United States succumbed to “realism” atYalta. And it benefited when the United States used its power to fightfor principle. That was critical during the Cold War and in opening thedoors of NATO. Had a “realist” view prevailed in the early 1990s, wewould not be in NATO today and the idea of a Europe whole, free, and atpeace would be a distant dream.

We understand the heavy demands on your Administration and on U.S.foreign policy. It is not our intent to add to the list of problems youface. Rather, we want to help by being strong Atlanticist allies in aU.S.-European partnership that is a powerful force for good around theworld. But we are not certain where our region will be in five or tenyears time given the domestic and foreign policy uncertainties we face.We need to take the right steps now to ensure the strong relationshipbetween the United States and Central and Eastern Europe over the pasttwenty years will endure.

We believe this is a time both the United States and Europe need toreinvest in the transatlantic relationship. We also believe this is atime when the United States and Central and Eastern Europe mustreconnect around a new and forward-looking agenda. While recognizingwhat has been achieved in the twenty years since the fall of the IronCurtain, it is time to set a new agenda for close cooperation for thenext twenty years across the Atlantic.

Therefore, we propose the following steps:

First, we are convinced that America needs Europe and that Europeneeds the United States as much today as in the past. The United Statesshould reaffirm its vocation as a European power and make clear that itplans to stay fully engaged on the continent even while it faces thepressing challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the wider Middle East,and Asia. For our part we must work at home in our own countries and inEurope more generally to convince our leaders and societies to adopt amore global perspective and be prepared to shoulder more responsibilityin partnership with the United States.

Second, we need a renaissance of NATO as the most important securitylink between the United States and Europe. It is the only credible hardpower security guarantee we have. NATO must reconfirm its core functionof collective defense even while we adapt to the new threats of the21st century. A key factor in our ability to participate in NATO’sexpeditionary missions overseas is the belief that we are secure athome. We must therefore correct some self-inflicted wounds from thepast. It was a mistake not to commence with proper Article 5 defenseplanning for new members after NATO was enlarged. NATO needs to makethe Alliance’s commitments credible and provide strategic reassuranceto all members. This should include contingency planning,prepositioning of forces, equipment, and supplies for reinforcement inour region in case of crisis as originally envisioned in theNATO-Russia Founding Act.

We should also re-think the working of the NATO-Russia Council andreturn to the practice where NATO member countries enter into dialoguewith Moscow with a coordinated position. When it comes to Russia, ourexperience has been that a more determined and principled policy towardMoscow will not only strengthen the West’s security but will ultimatelylead Moscow to follow a more cooperative policy as well. Furthermore,the more secure we feel inside NATO, the easier it will also be for ourcountries to reach out to engage Moscow on issues of common interest.That is the dual track approach we need and which should be reflectedin the new NATO strategic concept.

Third, the thorniest issue may well be America’s plannedmissile-defense installations. Here too, there are different views inthe region, including among our publics which are divided. Regardlessof the military merits of this scheme and what Washington eventuallydecides to do, the issue has nevertheless also become — at least insome countries — a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment tothe region. How it is handled could have a significant impact on theirfuture transatlantic orientation. The small number of missiles involvedcannot be a threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, and the Kremlinknows this. We should decide the future of the program as allies andbased on the strategic plusses and minuses of the different technicaland political configurations. The Alliance should not allow the issueto be determined by unfounded Russian opposition. Abandoning theprogram entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it withoutconsulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibilityof the United States across the whole region.

Fourth, we know that NATO alone is not enough. We also want and needmore Europe and a better and more strategic U.S.-EU relationship aswell. Increasingly our foreign policies are carried out through theEuropean Union – and we support that. We also want a common Europeanforeign and defense policy that is open to close cooperation with theUnited States. We are the advocates of such a line in the EU. But weneed the United States to rethink its attitude toward the EU and engageit much more seriously as a strategic partner. We need to bring NATOand the EU closer together and make them work in tandem. We need commonNATO and EU strategies not only toward Russia but on a range of othernew strategic challenges.

Fifth is energy security. The threat to energy supplies can exert animmediate influence on our nations’ political sovereignty also asallies contributing to common decisions in NATO. That is why it mustalso become a transatlantic priority. Although most of theresponsibility for energy security lies within the realm of the EU, theUnited States also has a role to play. Absent American support, theBaku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline would never have been built. Energysecurity must become an integral part of U.S.-European strategiccooperation. Central and Eastern European countries should lobby harder(and with more unity) inside Europe for diversification of the energymix, suppliers, and transit routes, as well as for tough legal scrutinyof Russia’s abuse of its monopoly and cartel-like power inside the EU.But American political support on this will play a crucial role.Similarly, the United States can play an important role in solidifyingfurther its support for the Nabucco pipeline, particularly in using itssecurity relationship with the main transit country, Turkey, as well asthe North-South interconnector of Central Europe and LNG terminals inour region.

Sixth, we must not neglect the human factor. Our next generationsneed to get to know each other, too. We have to cherish and protect themultitude of educational, professional, and other networks andfriendships that underpin our friendship and alliance. The U.S. visaregime remains an obstacle in this regard. It is absurd that Poland andRomania — arguably the two biggest and most pro-American states in theCEE region, which are making substantial contributions in Iraq andAfghanistan — have not yet been brought into the visa waiver program.It is incomprehensible that a critic like the French anti-globalizationactivist Jose Bove does not require a visa for the United States butformer Solidarity activist and Nobel Peace prizewinner Lech Walesadoes. This issue will be resolved only if it is made a politicalpriority by the President of the United States.

The steps we made together since 1989 are not minor in history. Thecommon successes are the proper foundation for the transatlanticrenaissance we need today. This is why we believe that we should alsoconsider the creation of a Legacy Fellowship for young leaders. Twentyyears have passed since the revolutions of 1989. That is a wholegeneration. We need a new generation to renew the transatlanticpartnership. A new program should be launched to identify those youngleaders on both sides of the Atlantic who can carry forward thetransatlantic project we have spent the last two decades building inCentral and Eastern Europe.

In conclusion, the onset of a new Administration in the UnitedStates has raised great hopes in our countries for a transatlanticrenewal. It is an opportunity we dare not miss. We, the authors of thisletter, know firsthand how important the relationship with the UnitedStates has been. In the 1990s, a large part of getting Europe right wasabout getting Central and Eastern Europe right. The engagement of theUnited States was critical to locking in peace and stability from theBaltics to the Black Sea. Today the goal must be to keep Central andEastern Europe right as a stable, activist, and Atlanticist part of ourbroader community.

That is the key to our success in bringing about the renaissance inthe Alliance the Obama Administration has committed itself to work forand which we support. That will require both sides recommitting to andinvesting in this relationship. But if we do it right, the pay off downthe road can be very real. By taking the right steps now, we can put iton new and solid footing for the future.