Playing the Trump Card

The governments of ten nations in Central and Eastern Europe add their voices to the chorus supporting the US in its military stand against Iraq

As any RISK player knows, you always keep back the good cards as long as possible for unexpected situations. No doubt the Bush administration has adopted this strategy, spending most of last year to obtain as many of these trump cards as possible. The end result can now be seen, as an isolated superpower tries to forge an alliance with as many "allies" as possible (Identity Crisis).

In reality, the effectiveness of this so-called coalition is negligible, but in the game of diplomacy it's often a question of quantity, and not quality. Nowhere is this more so than with the ten Central and Eastern European countries who are waiting in the wings for NATO membership. Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania have all lined up behind the US to support George W. Bush's war against Saddam Hussein. Some have already been given the green light for membership late last year (i.e., the Baltic states); others are hoping their turn will be coming soon.

The American diplomatic offensive in the former Warsaw Pact nations has been severely underestimated by the EU. Consequently, a rift has emerged which has undermined the authority of Brussels. Dangling the NATO carrot before the eyes has been a most effective means by which to bribe the support of these nations, albeit it has been just one of many tactics employed by Washington.

Security through US with NATO membership

Although many pundits in the west have questioned the relevance of NATO in a post Cold War world, what they failed to realise is that the various countries of Central and Eastern Europe consider the alliance as very important, a group to which they must belong. Generally, all feel it's in their security interest to be a part of NATO, though each has their own reason for wanting to join this exclusive club of the west. For one, it's just that; an exclusive club of the west, and the image of belonging to this club carries with it a certain measure of prestige.

But there are other considerations as well. For the Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia) there is a genuine fear of Russia and that NATO membership provides a safeguard against history repeating itself. Indeed, many find that it's more than just NATO, that it's the US who will protect them. So to make sure of this, they feel it's their duty to support the US government whenever it needs or asks for help.

What is more, some are distrustful of EU institutions. Estonia, for example, resents the EU's criticism of their stringent minority laws, in which the large Russian minority are forced to integrate into Estonian society. Moreover, the prosecution of former members of the KGB and Soviet collaborators have not got down well in Brussels, but finds more sympathetic ears in Washington.

Aside from the fears of a revivalist Russia, others within Central and Eastern Europe look to the US and NATO as a means to secure the peace with their neighbours. This is apparent in the countries of the former Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia). Also, they look to the US as a lobby partner in terms of EU membership; in turn, they lobby for US interests within various EU forums and, more importantly, the UN. This form of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" was apparent during the Copenhagen Summit in December last year when the US lobbied hard for Turkey, albeit to no avail.

Most Countries expect some financial reward from the US

Politics aside, it mustn't be forgotten that economics also plays a vital role. As the countries of Central and Eastern Europe swing from one extreme to the other -- that is, from Soviet communism to American capitalism -- most governments feel closely aligned with the US than Europe, where remnants of social democracy still prevail in many areas (although here too it's being eroded by the forces of globalisation). The political class is still very much an elite, and thus align themselves closer to the center of their ideology in much the same way that the People's Democracies of the past looked to Moscow for inspiration and, in many cases, protection.

Not only this, but leaders throughout the region are at a loss of how to get their economies moving again. Some, are not in such bad shape. The Baltic states have strong commercial ties with Scandinavia, leading some countries, such as Estonia, to be among the top of the region in terms of performance and quite close to the EU mean. The same goes for Slovenia, thanks most in part to its proximity to Austria and Italy. Others, however, are in dire straits, and while some progress can be seen in countries like Romania and Bulgaria, those of the Balkans, such as Albania, look to be in shambles.

Unfortunately, most of these countries see the simple infusion of capital as the quickest and easiest way to solve their deeply rooted problems. Thus, the hope among most of these countries is that some sort of financial reward will come from the US if they pledge their support.

Finally, there is a cultural element which needs to be considered, in that US pop culture, together with the mantra of conspicuous consumption, is prevalent throughout the region. Much of this has to do with an rebellion against the old, the present against the past. Since this cultural element is geared toward war, it's only to be expected that many are willing to rally around the US.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that these countries share a somewhat united view in their support for the US policy on Iraq. What remains to be seen is if this will be enough, and how it will affect future relations within the broader context of a "New Europe". (John Horvath)