President Obama’s Return to Prague: An Opportunity to Reset

U.S.–Central European Relations

One year ago, President Obama made his very first (there were five more to come) yet historic visit to Europe as the new American president. He attended his first G-20 Summit in London and held his first meeting with Russian president Dmitri Medvedev; he paid tribute to NATO’s 60th birthday; he experienced his first U.S.–European Union Summit (and was reportedly underwhelmed); he gave a major foreign policy address unfurling the “Global Zero” policy that embraces a world without nuclear weapons; and finally, he made an important visit to Turkey, a trip of significance by any measure.

One year later, President Obama’s return to Prague is equally significant, but for different reasons. While the world’s attention will be focused on Presidents Obama and Medvedev as they sign a new strategic arms reduction treaty—a treaty arguably light on reduction but heavy on a symbolic victory for both the U.S.-Russian reset and Global Zero policies, a relatively unnoticed working dinner at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Prague will be held.

In an important gesture, President Obama has invited 11 Central and Eastern European leaders for dinner the evening of April 8. The global topics of discussion will be Afghanistan (where all the dinner guests have made difficult political decisions to send troops to Afghanistan) and an update on Iran. The “closer-to-home” topics will include U.S. missile defense plans in Europe and NATO’s future, and in particular the Alliance’s steadfastness on collective defense and its sacred Article 5 commitment, “an attack against one is an attack against all” clause.

This presidential breaking of bread with Central Europe is an opportunity to institute a certain kind of “reset” with Central Europe and ultimately could become the basis of a greater transatlantic reset as well. As triumphant as President Obama’s return to Prague will be, it has been an uneasy and uncertain year for Central Europe as they have warily gauged this administration’s transatlantic intentions.

Although President Obama’s popularity across Europe is great, it was always more tempered the further east one moved. When Vice President Biden articulated the administration’s new reset policy toward Russia last February, Central Europe cringed. The region intuitively sensed that the United States was placing its relationship with Russia as a greater priority than its relationship with Central Europe.

And then came the infamous “Open Letter to the Obama Administration from Central and Eastern Europe.” This letter was signed by 22 former Central and Eastern European leaders who lamented the lack of attention from Washington and expressed their concerns and anxieties regarding U.S. policy vis-à-vis Russia and NATO’s efficacy. Open letters are not the typical means by which close partners and allies voice their concerns to one another, and, though one could argue with the validity of their arguments, the Obama administration clearly did not receive either the message or the method of delivery very well at all.

Yet the low point occurred on September 17 when the Obama administration hurriedly unveiled its new missile defense plans, altering a Bush administration plan that would have placed 10 missile defense interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. Not only were the prime ministers of both countries called by the White House in the early hours of the morning to “announce” the administration’s new plans, but September 17 for Poland has extraordinary meaning—it was the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. There was a visceral reaction against the administration from Central Europe, and it was clear that the relationship was in trouble.

But the administration, to its credit, has been working to restore the relationship. Vice President Biden’s trip in October to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania was an important first step. Biden is personally admired in this region, and his attempts to reassure Central Europe on the new missile defense plans—which Central Europe has now accepted more fully—were welcome. Moreover, efforts to revitalize NATO through its next Strategic Concept and to strategically reassure Central Europe will also aid the recovery.

Now President Obama personally has an opportunity to push the reset button on America’s relationship with Central Europe. One year ago during his visit to Turkey, President Obama said, “I know there have been some difficulties in recent years. In some ways, that foundation has been weakening. We’ve had some specific differences over policy, but we’ve also at times lost the sense that both of our countries are in this together—that we have shared interests and shared values and that we can have a partnership that serves our common hopes and common dreams. So I came here to renew that foundation and to build on it.” Although President Obama was referring to U.S.-European relations under the Bush administration, his remarks can be applied to today’s U.S.–Central European relationship. It is hoped that when President Obama goes to Prague again it will be with the intent to renew and build upon America’s valued relationship with Central Europe.

Heather A. Conley is senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration.

Commentaries are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.