Why do states quarrel? One answer can be found in the bleak vision of Thomas Hobbes on his rumination of human nature, seen as motivated by competition, diffidence or glory. “The first maketh man invade for Gain, the second for Safety and the third for Reputation.” But fear not, as the solution he sees to taming the pesky impulses of human nature is found in relinquishing one’s sovereignty to the state, the Leviathan. In the same manner, taming states therefore requires striking up political alliances and surrendering one’s sovereignty to an interdependent system of states.
Indeed, this is what is happening today in Central and Eastern Europe, as diffident states have sought to soothe their Crimea-battered spirits by jumping even more wholeheartedly aboard the U.S. boat.
Since the onset of the Crimean crisis, the two most important U.S. allies in the region, Romania and Poland, have been very vocal in calling on Washington to augment its presence in the region in order to dissuade a resurgent Russia. Poland took it a step further and asked for a permanent American military presence of 10,000 troops to take point in the region. Should we take these issues seriously?
We most certainly should. Neither country feels secure in NATO as they have demanded increased protection. The coalescent factor is the fact that they share similar strategic concerns when it comes to their big Eastern neighbor, albeit for different reasons.
Polish foreign policy has always been predicated on the need to preserve its sovereignty, while at the same time balancing Russia and Germany against each other. Presently, Warsaw sees with growing unease the developments on its southeastern border and its hopes of more European support have been dashed by European inaction.
In Romania’s case, fears are mounting that the Moldovan breakaway province of Transnistria, where Moscow has stationed approximately 2000 troops, will suffer a similar fate to Crimea. In fact, the separatist leader of the province, Yevgeny Shevchuk, has repeatedly called for ‘a civilized divorce from Moldova’ as the best solution to joining the Russian Federation. Crucially, the country is home to the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, which has become the main transit point for troops and supplies going to and fro Afghanistan. In addition, the second American air base at Deveselu is the home of the famed Ballistic Missile Shield, equipped with SM-3 interceptor missiles.
Washington has rushed to reassure its key allies in the region, by mounting an intense campaign of shuttle diplomacy between the capitals of the two countries. Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, John McCain and even Barack Obama, have in past months all visited the region, negotiating with officials and building new alliance structures. The American President presented his vision to the world in Warsaw, when he unveiled the ‘European Reassurance Initiative’ (ERI).
In a nutshell, America’s ‘little pivot’ to Europe entails doling out $1 billion, increasing US military deployment to Europe, as well as accelerating the deployment of the missile shield while rotating ground troops and F-16s into Poland. Essentially, the ERI tries to create a regional military power bloc, which would deepen its military cooperation beyond the already existing NATO framework. If achieved, this informal alliance will span from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, setting the foundation of a new, albeit limited in scope, Iron Curtain.
Meanwhile, in the West…
Moving away from Warsaw and just crossing over Poland’s western border, the tone and attitude change dramatically. Despite Angela Merkel huffing and puffing in the midst of the Crimean crisis towards Vladimir Putin, the angry rhetoric has yet to find a more practical translation. Like France and the U.K, the major powers in Europe have been seduced by its grandiose neighbor. This has been achieved by energy contracts, foreign direct investments and by military purchases by Moscow. The trio have chosen to take a prisoners’ dilemma approach to tackling the Ukrainian crisis – cooperating in doing nothing, protecting their individual interests and settling for the lesser evil.
This cautious approach is evident in NATO’s Fogh Rasmussen. Even if he has asked for an increase in the defense budget of European members, he dismissed any measure that would be in breach of an almost forgotten 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. This latter document formalized post-Cold War borders in Europe and states that the West will never permanently deploy nuclear weapons, troops or other arms in the countries that were part of the Iron Curtain. In other words, Poland’s 10,000 American troops will never come to Europe.
This strategic conundrum has left Romania and Poland, the most stalwart American allies in the region, torn between towing the European line or trying to push for a little less conversation and a little more action. They both have chosen to push for the latter, thereby bringing the two countries closer together than probably at any other point in their post-1989 history. This is part of a wider trend, of states willing to take matters into their own hands and strike up bilateral or multilateral deals, outside the fumbling frameworks of the EU and NATO.
All in all, the scenario feels eerily familiar: competing Western European interests have rendered its Eastern neighbors exposed and afraid by what they perceive as being an existential threat to their national integrity. A war-weary America has been called upon to supplement the caveats of European defense, forcing the incumbent administration to take a more hands-on approach than it would have preferred. Meanwhile, Russia is mesmerized by its imperial past and is trying to reassert itself as a global force.
What is clear though is that new fault lines are emerging in Europe, fueled more by emotion than by reason. Hobbes was right – competition, diffidence and glory are the only elements underpinning the warring nature of international politics. Western Europe’s Big Three, Eastern Europe, and Russia have made this point well.