The Washington Post Column

Farewell, New Europe

It was a sunny day in June, and George W. Bush was making a speech at the University of Warsaw. Inside, the politicians listened with interest; outside, crowds gathered to cheer; afterward, the press was full of praise.

Hard to imagine, but true: That’s what President Bush’s first visit to Poland was like — and I was there — in the unfathomably distant summer of 2001. On that same trip, Bush also went to Spain. During a joint news conference, the Spanish prime minister, Josè Marìa Aznar, thanked Bush for his administration’s “kindness.” Said Bush: “Spain is a friend of the United States, and [Prime Minister] Aznar is a friend of mine.”

Not all of that trip went so smoothly: There were protests at a U.S.-European summit and elsewhere. Nevertheless, these predictable displays of outrage were tempered by the first hints of something new: a pro-American, European alliance consisting of Tony Blair’s Britain, Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, the center-right governments of Spain, Portugal and Denmark, and, of course, the ex-communist states of Central Europe. These were all countries that had recently undergone market liberalization, countries prone to resent the Franco-German domination of continental politics. In 2003, when Donald Rumsfeld slightingly referred to Germany and France as “Old Europe,” this vague, almost-alliance acquired a name, “New Europe.” It meant pro-American, accepting of global capitalism and supportive of the war on terrorism. Not coincidentally, these were the countries that eventually made up the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.

A mere four years later, New Europe no longer exists. Aznar, Berlusconi and Blair are out of office or about to be, partly victims of failure in Iraq. Central Europe’s mood has changed profoundly, from pro-American to deeply skeptical. This Friday, Bush plans to spend precisely three hours and 10 minutes on the ground in Poland, making no speeches, seeing no one much besides the Polish president. And it won’t be a very wide-ranging discussion. Mortally wounded by Iraq, damaged further by the American administration’s lack of interest in its concerns — change in the U.S. visa regime, military assistance — New Europe will probably now be killed off completely by American plans to build a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Belatedly, the State Department has done its best to promote the shield project, and pro-American politicians in both countries are scrambling to find a way to support it. But it remains deeply unpopular, and it isn’t clear whether the parliament of either country could accept it. Europeans don’t understand why a piece of equipment designed to protect the United States from Iran needs to be placed on their territory, particularly given that Iran in fact threatens Israel, not the United States or Europe. Nor do they see why they should accept without question the installation of military hardware that opens them up to new risks. This week the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, threatened to point his own nuclear missiles at Europe if the missile shield is built. “It is obvious,” Putin told journalists on Sunday, that “if part of the strategic nuclear potential of the U.S. is located in Europe and will be threatening us, we will have to respond.”

This is, of course, entirely cynical: There are good reasons to ask whether this particular system really has to be built right now, but it isn’t “strategic nuclear potential,” and it isn’t designed to threaten Russia, as the Russians know perfectly well. Still, Putin’s Cold War rhetoric is beginning to worry people all across the continent; he must be counting it a huge success. Yet it seems no one in the Pentagon ever imagined that there might be objections to the project, or that the locals might want some extra reassurance, or that a bit of judicious diplomacy might have smoothed the way in advance. According to some, the State Department didn’t even know the missile shield was going ahead until the Pentagon had made the decision. Sound familiar?

And all of this, every bit of it, was avoidable. Indeed, New Europe is expiring just as France and Germany have acquired leaders distinctly more pro-American than their predecessors. With a bit more attention and a bit less arrogance, the transatlantic alliance might now be reinvigorated instead of being angry and resentful. When we get around to assessing Bush’s foreign policy, the damage done on the old continent may loom almost as large as the damage done in Iraq.