Vice President Biden reassures Central European Allies

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. wraps up his central European tour of Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic. His visits were designed to reassure NATO allies that the United States remains committed to European security and that the recent “reset” effort in US-Russian relations is not to the detriment of allied interests. The Czech Republic accepted today to host a component of the reconfigured missile defense plan proposed by the Obama Administration.

On the footsteps of Mr. Biden’s central European tour, NATO defense ministers meet today in Slovakia. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is there to brief U.S. allies on the details of the Obama administration’s plan for an anti-missile network of land-based sensors and sea-based interceptors that would mitigate the threat of a potential Iranian rocket attack.

The Bush era anti-missile shield plan, scrapped by the Obama administration last month, initially envisioned Poland and the Czech Republic as host countries. The two allies stood to lose confidence in U.S. regional security commitment, but the visit of the U.S. Vice-President seems to have lain to rest some of these concerns. Poland was offered instead a scaled down new missile defense plan, the SM-3 which includes some land based interceptors. One little misstep was to plan this visit to Poland just as the country commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion.

An interesting choice in Mr. Biden’s diplomatic tour was his trip to Romania where he gave a major regional security and democracy speech that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the fall of Communist regimes throughout central and Eastern Europe. Romania is a staunch ally of the United States having maintained for years troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It currently maintains over one thousand soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan and only recently recalled its troops from Iraq.

Romania hosts a U.S. military base on the Black Sea coast and US training facilities but unlike the Czech and Polish peers it had little to lose out of the recently scrapped Bush era anti-missile plans. Instead the country is ideally situated as an alternative host country for the reconfigured missile defense plan. There was no official mentioning of the country’s offer to host any component of the new plan but it has standing agreements that allow U.S. military to operate facilities on its territory.

Mr. Biden’s speech in Bucharest, on fostering regional security and democracy, outlined the Obama administration’s policy of involving regional allies, such as Romania and Poland, as full partners and not as junior members of NATO. It outlined willingness to put Washington’s weight behind regional efforts to foster democracy in the wider Black Sea region, in countries that aspire to become closely linked with NATO and EU structures. “You can help guide Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine…Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus… Your leadership must be bold and your voices loud,” Mr. Biden said.

The statement is of great interest in Bucharest. Romania as NATO and European Union member is strongly lobbying for Moldova’s greater integration in the western security and economic structures. The two neighboring countries share a common history, a common language and a desire to alleviate regional instability in Trasnistria, a breakaway Moldovan region. Following last month’s Moldovan election the new western-leaning Chisinau government gives momentum for stability and democratic progress there.

During a joint statement with Romanian president Traian Basescu, Mr. Biden indicated Washington’s desire to see Moldova “continue along the path for democracy and … that they will be integrated into European institutions when they are ready.” Mr. Biden proved that the Obama administration is sensitive to the concerns of its allies and it is willing to listen to their threat assessments.

One major inconvenience in delivering the democracy speech was the internal political situation in Romania, where the country’s government fell last week due to a Parliamentary no confidence vote. The country is far from being a regional role model in democratic governance and stability. Its political spectrum is too fragmented for any coherent coalition to take over.

No side of the political elite is willing to compromise in this “thriving democracy” while the rest of the population is struggling with the harsh impact of the global economic downturn. No matter how much Mr. Biden wanted to hammer down the point that the relationship has changed from dependence to one of reliable partnership, the fact remains that the elite here has not reached political maturity and democratic consolidation remains a work in progress.

The United States remains the indispensible nation that Europe continues to look to in assuring its own security and in fostering the stability of other countries that are still struggling to attain stable democratic regimes. Mr. Biden tactfully succeeded to assure Europe of the U.S. commitment to spreading democratic values and protecting its allies.

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