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 Europe has become part of the European Union and has taken on much of the Western European public's skepticism about the intentions of U.S. foreign policy. The real change in sentiment, however, began just three years ago, when the Obama administration initiated its so-called reset with Russia. Coupled as it was with a number of gaffes, the move led central European leaders to believe that U.S. priorities had dangerously shifted. Washington's two-decade-old strategic approach to Russia, which aimed to consolidate a zone of democracy and stability on Russia's western flank, was replaced by a contractual approach that prioritized cooperation with Moscow on global issues.

Harboring bitter memories of Soviet domination, central Europeans have always gauged U.S. commitment by virtue of the United States' willingness to be physically present in the region, whether through armed deployments or military exercises. "The more NATO in Poland, the better for us," stated former Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich in 2010, upon inviting the NATO Response Force to hold its first training exercise in Poland.

Today, Poland and its neighbors worry that NATO's commitment to the region is waning. The alliance is in the process of scaling down its operational capabilities, meaning that it will be able to conduct fewer simultaneous operations than in the past. The withdrawal from Europe of two U.S. combat brigades, consisting of some 7,000 troops, makes central Europe similarly nervous. Washington's deployment of rotational units to the region is perceived on the ground as little more than a token gesture of support.

The ups and downs of the missile defense project have also led central Europeans to question the United States' resolve. Right at the outset of his presidency, Obama scrapped the Bush-era plans for installing a missile defense system in Poland, allegedly hoping to gain Russia's support for sanctions against Iran. The decision was unhelpfully announced on September 17, 2009, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's invasion of Poland. Polish leaders are still reeling from the decision; President Bronisław Komorowski said in August that his country's "mistake was that by accepting the American offer of a [missile defense] shield we failed to take into account the political risk associated with a change of president. We paid a high political price." Today, Warsaw is planning to build its own missile defense system as part of the larger NATO shield.

Central European countries feared that the Russia reset would mean not only a reduction of military support for the region but also a move away from a policy based on liberal principles toward one based on realpolitik. They understood that such a policy was exactly what Russia wanted, and that Moscow would exploit it with a vengeance. The ruthlessness with which Russia pursues its interests in Syria, in spite of the Assad regime's atrocities, is a case in point. Over three years after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with the infamous reset button, it remains unclear whether the United States' bid for warmer relations with Russia has paid off. True, Washington and Moscow have been able to cooperate to some degree on Iran policy, but Russia itself already has a strong national interest in preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and likely would have worked with the United States even without prodding from the Obama administration.

At the same time, Russia has been quick to capitalize on the reset. Russian President Vladimir Putin's concept of a "Eurasian Union," a political and economic grouping of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan with designs to expand to other Eurasian states, is a cynical response to both Washington's reduced role in eastern Europe and the European Union's loss of influence in the area. Russia is now attempting to restore elements of its former empire with the autocratic regimes of Belarus and Kazakhstan as the foundation, having introduced among them a customs union and the Eurasian Economic Commission to institutionalize the ties. As a result, central Europe feels that it has been doubly abandoned by Washington, both materially, by means of a more lukewarm U.S. engagement in the region, and in terms of principles, as Obama has not been as steadfast a proponent of the so-called freedom agenda as his predecessor was. Washington's high-profile "pivot" to Asia, coupled with the U.S. Congress' zeal for smaller budgets, has only strengthened this perception.

A smaller focus on central Europe might seem sensible given the perception that the region has successfully transformed itself into a prosperous and democratic area, and thus does not require as much attention as it once received. To some extent, this is a valid point: Poland, at least, has enjoyed a golden decade of good feelings and rising levels of prosperity.

But the situation elsewhere is not as straightforward. The Hungarian and Romanian governments have turned their backs on democratic norms. At the same time, the region has not resolved all its security dilemmas. Russia's recent decision to install mobile surface-to-air S-400 missiles in Kaliningrad, near the Polish border, is one example of Moscow's provocative behavior. Russia has indicated to central European leaders that this is the price for agreeing to host the planned U.S. missile defense system, even though it has not yet been constructed and is explicitly directed at Iran, not Russia. As Estonian President Toomas Ilves put it, "We would very much like the allies who have proposed [missile defense] not to leave this area with less security" than before.

For central European leaders, then, the Obama administration's policy seems to have amounted to a premature and risky withdrawal from a region that has not yet balanced its geopolitical equation. Particularly as the European Union and the eurozone face a political and economic crisis, central Europeans feel that it is not the right time for Washington to retreat from their region.

The U.S. pivot out of central Europe should be measured by not only Washington's backtracking on earlier plans to increase its military presence in the region but also its loss of political influence there. In the 1990s, as the main architect of NATO enlargement, the United States became a major player in central Europe. Far from representing merely an extension of the security umbrella, NATO enlargement proved to the region's publics that their ambitions to rejoin the West would soon be realized. This was a great boost to morale. Today, however, Washington is no longer such a central player. This is largely the result of the region's successful integration into the European Union, a process that the United States has supported and that has had tremendous transformative power. But no matter how close countries such as Poland have drawn to Western Europe, its security remains fragile and could be thrown into jeopardy in the event of a crisis such as a skirmish along the lines of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.  

This is not to say that Poland wants the United States to adopt an uncompromising attitude toward Russia. For its part, Warsaw has also pursued rapprochement with Moscow in recent years. Putin voiced commitment to working with Poland during his 2009 visit to Gdańsk on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. His friendly overtures were rooted in Poland's growing role in the European Union, which was still considered a rising force in world affairs at the time. Today, however, Russian leaders tend to believe that European integration has run its course and that the European Union is a declining power. Meanwhile, Warsaw continues to hope for a rapprochement but believes it can happen only if Russia reexamines its view of the world. "You cannot 'reset' with 1,000 years of history," Komorowski said in a 2010 speech. "But we can invest in new relations with Russia. Reset can happen at the end of the process, not the beginning."

Central European leaders share Washington's hope that Russia can become a predictable, cooperative, and engaged partner. But in geopolitics, miracles rarely happen by themselves. It would be folly to expect Russia not to exercise its power right up to the limits that other countries, especially the United States, draw for it. Yet ironically, the greatest fear in central Europe today is not Russia's strength but rather its weakness. Russia's economy and state budget are at the mercy of oil and gas prices, and its demographic situation looks bleak. These challenges could very well lead to Russia's behaving in unpredictable and provocative ways. After all, it has been only four short years since Russia's war with Georgia, in which Moscow reacted to Tbilisi's provocations with disproportionate force, invading a former Soviet republic for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The United States need not, however, give up hope for warmer relations with Russia, provided Moscow embarks on a path to reform. A necessary sense of realism can be coupled with support for Russia's transformation. Given the autocratic character of the Russian leadership, the West must verify the country's intentions in world affairs at the same time that it encourages Russia to escape the limitations of its past. This means that the West should seek to integrate Russia more closely into the liberal world order, a process that the country's accession to the World Trade Organization indicates is already under way, at least to some extent.

The United States' pivot to Asia and reset with Russia must not take place at the expense of U.S. interests elsewhere. If they do, Washington will only be sowing the seeds of trouble in the future.

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  • PAWEŁ ŚWIEBODA is President of demosEUROPA -- Centre for European Strategy, a public policy institute in Warsaw.
  • More By Pawel Swieboda