During the 2012 U.S. presidential election, President Barack Obama accused his rival, Mitt Romney, of harboring a worldview better suited to the Cold War than to the twenty-first century. "The 1980s," the president said to Romney in the final debate, are "now calling to ask for their foreign policy back." It was a catchy campaign line and a useful anticipation of Romney's argument that Obama was wrong to pursue warmer relations with Russia at the expense of ties to traditional allies, particularly Poland. But as Obama prepares his foreign policy team for a second four years in office, he would do well to take this part of Romney's message to heart. The Cold War may be over, but the security equation in central and eastern Europe has not been totally solved; Russia still presents a major geopolitical challenge to Western democracies; and maintaining the strength of U.S. alliances in the region is just as important as ever. Even as it seeks to shift resources to the Asia-Pacific region and sustain positive relations with Moscow, the United States cannot afford to pivot away from central Europe.
Close ties between Washington and central European countries date back to 1999, when NATO welcomed the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland as full members. The enlargement of NATO did wonders to stabilize the region, ensuring that it continued on the path to democracy and prosperity. The United States enjoyed a sterling reputation at the time, as Washington provided political and security anchors that bolstered central Europeans' sense that their countries were moving in the right direction. Soon thereafter, Poland participated in the U.S.-led missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, becoming one of the main troop contributors in both operations, mainly to prove its loyalty. Not surprisingly, Poland remained one of the few Western countries where U.S. President George W. Bush continued to enjoy favorable ratings, even as his Iraq policy inspired revulsion elsewhere in Europe.
Little of that good feeling is left today. Central
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