A Silver Lining for Mitteleuropa

Despite a week of disappointments, Central and Eastern Europe might not be in such bad shape after all.

At first glance, it was not a great week for Central and Eastern Europe. Monday saw headlines like “E.U. Denies Request for Bailout of E. Europe.” On Tuesday, picking up on a story that first appeared in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration might trade deployment of a U.S.-built missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic for Russia’s help in stopping Iran’s nuclear program. That prompted one former Bush administration official to accuse President Obama of betraying two fledgling NATO members and presiding over a “second coming of Yalta.”

But the second-tier countries of Mitteleuropa are less hapless than these stories might suggest. In fact, Poland, the Czech Republic, and even Hungary are in a good position, with a little help from the United States, to turn the news of the last week to their advantage.

For starters, “Eastern Europe” didn’t exactly get stiffed. Although Hungary proposed a $240 billion rescue fund for Eastern Europe, countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, which are in relatively better financial shape, pointedly distanced themselves from the request. And as some European commentators noted, for all the talk of an E.U. slapdown, the Hungarians got what they really wanted: a commitment to help out countries on a case-by-case basis. With $1.25 trillion in lending exposure, Western European financial institutions can’t exactly afford to slam down the loan window on their poorer cousins’ fingers. You could even argue that Hungary’s Prime Minister did Germany’s Angela Merkel a political favor in a tough election year, allowing her to appear tough by tut-tutting his request.

While Polish and Czech fears of Russia, their former Warsaw Pact overlord, are real enough, it’s hard to believe that they would shed more than crocodile tears over the loss of the U.S. missile defense system. To begin with, notwithstanding more than $150 billion in spending since the Reagan Administration, missile defense has about as much chance of working against a real threat as you have a chance of winning the lottery. The planned system in Europe can’t provide certain protection against missiles from Iran, much less from Russia. Or as one 2007 Pentagon study put it, “The proposed GMD expansion to the European theater has not accomplished system engineering adequate to support the development of a test program sufficiently detailed to certify a high probability of working in an operationally effective manner once deployed.” Translation: “Good luck with that.”

The Polish and Czech publics never wanted the system, and for all Donald Rumsfeld’s chest-thumping about our buddies in the “New Europe,” never cared much for the Bush administration, either. In fact, according to a recent survey of European countries by the German Marshall Fund, the decline in trust in American leadership from 2002 to 2008 was steepest in Poland. Whatever political embarrassment this potential about-face might trigger, what the Poles and the Czechs most want is a visible and continuing commitment by the United States to their defense. There are better ways to do that than saddling them with unreliable technology that will likely do more to attract than destroy incoming missiles.

Beyond just helping to reverse the global economic meltdown, the United States does have a strong strategic interest in pushing international institutions to give Eastern and Central European countries the financial help they need. Even before the crisis, their publics were among the most skeptical about the benefits of free markets; shoring up that confidence is essential to bolstering their political stability. Russia will not be shy about fishing in such troubled waters, and even with declining oil prices still has the wherewithal to meddle in the internal affairs of its former junior partners. One easy, concrete way for the United States to signal that it cares: wangle an invitation for Poland to next month’s meeting of the G-20 economies on restoring growth. It wouldn’t play badly with Polish-American voters, either—but I’m guessing that would be apparent to a U.S. president who cut his political teeth in the land of Rostenkowskis.