May 28, 2004 | Commentary on International Organizations

After the fall

Many of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, former satellites of Soviet power, are firmly anchored in the institutions by now. In March NATO enlarged to 26 nations, and on May 1, the European Union ballooned to 25. "Europe whole and free" has been achieved with significant American support, and Europe's club of the rich has been extended to poorer cousins formerly held back by superannuated leaders in the Kremlin.

Yours truly was last here in 2000 when 10 nations got together to announce their candidacy for NATO membership, among them the Baltic countries. It was an event that was widely met with tut-tutting and shaking of heads in capitals of Europe and the United States. "Totally unrealistic," most people thought. But even in the darkest of days, the Baltic governments never lost their determination.

Since then, Vilnius itself has changed. Four years ago, the Old Town had been neatly restored, but now great tracts of the city display their clean northern European lines. Behind the hilltop Vilnius castle, skyscrapers impose their profiles on the skyline.

The brain drain that drew 200,000 Lithuanians to seek opportunities abroad is showing signs of reversing. A few days ago, Lithuanian television interviewed a Danish couple that had decided to settle here. During the summer, holidaymakers from Poland find relief from overcrowded vacation spots back home in the spectacular natural lake areas of Lithuania.

Having achieved their three overriding foreign policy goals of the 1990s -- EU and NATO membership, as well as peaceful relations with their neighbors -- Lithuanians are now asking themselves the question, what next for their foreign policy planners? Versions of that question are being asked throughout Central and Eastern Europe. From an American point of view, the answers will be quite interesting.

One answer that was offered during Monday's meeting of the Enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe, a gathering of think tank types from the eight Nordic and Baltic countries as well as the United States, was extending the zone of stability through integration with the West to Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine The three constitute the final unsettled post-Soviet space in Europe. Given the massive problems facing these countries and the strong Russian interest in their status, this is an extremely difficult project. Yet, people say here, 10 years ago, the same was said of the Baltic countries.

Lithuania's official foreign policy agenda is hardly less ambitious, as unveiled at the University of Vilnius by acting Lithuanian President Arturas Paulauskas. With the underlying safety guarantees of NATO now in place, the Lithuanians can turns their attention to integration into the European Union, a project that clearly will dominate Lithuanian foreign policy for years to come.

Immediate priorities include joining the Euro and the Schengen agreement (which eliminates border controls between EU members). It is expected to take Lithuania 20-30 years to catch up to the old EU members. President Paulauskas also pledged to work for a strong transatlantic alliance, with a key role for the United States in the European defense architecture. But at the same time he emphasized, "We are labeled Lithuanians, but we are Europeans."

The fact is that much as the new EU and NATO countries consider themselves friends and allies of the United States, the pull of the EU will be felt - is already being felt - for Brussels has the power of the purse strings, and the promise of its structural funds for local agriculture is powerful.

Will these countries even be able to formulate their own foreign policy in the future? After all, it was only a year and a half ago that French President Jacques Chirac berated them for being poor Europeans for siding with the United States over Iraq.

On Monday, one Polish foreign policy analyst tried to explain the difference between constraints imposed by the Soviet Union and the European Union, "It is different when you choose to accept constraints and when you are forced to. It is a difference I would like to be able to play on my violin some day" - suggesting that it involves a good deal of finesse in argumentation.

But we are not there yet. The European Common Foreign and Security Policy is still far from a reality, and foreign policy remains primarily a domain of the national capitals of Europe. The pressing question for American foreign policy thinkers is how to preserve our relationship with strong American allies among the new members in Eastern and Central Europe while recognizing that in some fundamental ways their world has changed. It is going to be quite a challenge.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org. Her column ordinarily appears on Wednesdays.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times