Sending the Vice President to Poland and the Czech Republic this week could easily be another misstep by the Administration when it comes to handling relations with Central and Eastern Europe. Despite his seniority, the famously gaffe-prone Joe Biden may not be the wisest choice to handle Washington’s “damage control” exercise in Warsaw and Prague.
And damage has been done in abundance, not just to America’s diplomatic relations with Poland and the Czech Republic, but to its standing in this part of the world more broadly. President Obama’s abandonment of the Third Site missile defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic, hurriedly announced by the Administration on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet’s invasion of Poland, has led the Poles and Czechs to conclude that their interests can be discarded at will. It has also left them wondering whether transatlantic security really is indivisible, or whether some countries matter more to Washington than its fellow NATO partners.
The 2009 Transatlantic Trends survey revealed that Central and Eastern Europeans see America in a less positive light than Western Europeans, and are significantly less enthusiastic about Obama’s conduct of foreign policy than their Western counterparts. Turning this around will be no easy feat and it will certainly take more than a two-day visit by the Vice President and an offer to host small parts of America’s revised missile defense architecture.
Poland and the Czech Republic’s interest in hosting the Third Site missile defenses was always about a durable U.S. commitment to Europe and to their Central and Eastern European allies. Poland has long sought to layer its relationship with America by complementing its NATO relationship with a stronger bilateral relationship. It has over 2,000 troops in Afghanistan and has made clear that it would seriously consider a U.S. request for additional troops – but only if it feels secure at home. Having Washington talk to Moscow more than it speaks to Warsaw does not build confidence.
For Joe Biden’s trip to be a success, he will have to back up Obama’s vague assurances with actual deliverables. There is plenty he can do on the security front with Warsaw, honoring elements of the package-deal that Poland signed with the previous Administration other than missile defense. The Administration can also put its weight behind Congressional review of the Visa Waiver Program, which excludes Poles from visa-free entry to the U.S., but includes most other EU countries including the Czech Republic.
By itself, Biden’s visit will not ameliorate the damage done to Polish-Czech-American relations by the Administration’s disastrous handling of the Third Site missile defense announcement and its overly-cozy relationship with Moscow. Now is the time for Biden to offer concrete measures to advance the Polish-American and Czech –American relationships.