Much was made last week of the decision by U. S. President Barack Obama to mark the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s invasion of Poland by announcing that the United States was scrapping the missile defence system it was deploying in Czech and Polish territory. But the anniversary – likely overlooked by the administration rather than chosen as a deliberate provocation to staunch allies – did usefully highlight a central question of European politics these last hundred years. Do the smaller nations of Europe somehow belong to the larger, imperial ones?
The missile defence system to be deployed in the Czech Republic and Poland was part of an American decision under George W. Bush to counter the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles, potentially nuclear, being launched against Europe. Russia protested mightily, as it saw Czech and Polish security co-operation with the United States as an obstacle to its own aspirations for domination in central Europe. Czechs and Poles were, until 20 years ago, part of the Russian empire. Their desire to integrate with the free West is borne of that brutal experience. Now that Russia has returned to modified tsarism under Vladimir Putin, the newly-free nations of eastern and central Europe are keen to strengthen their security ties with NATO, even if it angers the Russian bear.
President Obama seemed to return the feeling. Last April, he went to Prague to give a grand speech, in which he told the Czechs – lest they think that he is just about pretty words – that “words must mean something.”
“So let me be clear: Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbours and our allies,” the President said. “The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defence against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defence system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defence construction in Europe will be removed.”
Perhaps the Iranian threat was eliminated over the summer. In any case, Russia is exultant, saluting the new President for coming around to Moscow’s point of view. The Russian bear roared and Washington listened.
As it turns out, Pope Benedict XVI will be in the Czech Republic this coming weekend.
“The Czech Republic lies, geographically and historically, at the heart of Europe,” the Pope said ahead of his trip. “Having traversed the drama of last century, it needs, as does the entire continent, to rediscover reasons for faith and hope.”
The drama of the last century, indeed. Czechs and Poles learned that to be at the geographic heart of Europe was a dangerous place. The Czechs were sacrificed by the great powers at Munich to appease the imperial ambitions of the Third Reich. The aspiring Nazi empire then colluded with the expanding Russian empire to carve up Poland and remove it from the map of Europe.
These are not matters of the ancient past. A 20-year-old Pole today has lived their entire life in a free Poland. The last generation of Poles that could say that were born before the American Revolution. So it is a legitimate question for Poles and Czechs to ask whether or not they are truly at the heart of Europe, or perhaps only an appendix.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the answer given by successive governments in the West has been that yes, the Poles and Czechs – and Slovaks and Hungarians, and the Baltic peoples and others formerly under the paw of the Russian bear – belong emphatically at the heart of Europe. The abandonment of last week does not mean that the new American President no longer thinks so, but on a highly symbolic issue on a highly symbolic day, he chose to undermine allies who have fought bravely for freedom in Europe’s heart.
It may be that missile defence might be militarily pursued in another way. But symbols matter. Poland itself is a symbol of resilience and liberty. And words matter, too. Especially for a President whose power depends heavily on his pretty words, undoing in September what was promised in April undermines not only central European security, but the credibility of his own foreign policy.