Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic: The Security Record of "New Europe"

By Schmitt, Gary J. | AEI Paper & Studies, November 2016 | Go to article overview

Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic: The Security Record of "New Europe"


Schmitt, Gary J., AEI Paper & Studies


In the run-up to the Iraq War, the governments of France and Germany stated that they did not support an American-led war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. When asked at a press event in January 2003 what he made of their opposition, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld replied, "Now, you're thinking of Europe as Germany and France.... I think that's old Europe. If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east." He went on to argue that, when counting other countries but especially new and prospective member states, most NATO members were "not with France and Germany, ... they're with the United States." (1)

The secretary's assessment seemed quickly to become reality. Within days, new NATO member states and aspiring NATO member states had signed letters opposing the French and German position and supporting the American view that Iraq was in breach of UN Security Council resolutions and that action against Iraq was required. In a letter published on January 30 in the Wall Street Journal under the title "United We Stand," eight governments signaled their alignment with the Bush administration on Iraq. (2) Among the eight signatories were Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic--the first countries added to NATO's rolls following the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union. (3)

Whether intended or not, Rumsfeld's remarks, however, took on a broader meaning. For many commentators, the division of Europe and NATO into "old" and "new" was a not-too-subtle suggestion that the reliability and energy of longer-standing alliance members were increasingly in question when it came to supporting the global security interests of the liberal West. Perhaps such support was more likely to be found in the new members of NATO. Coming on the heels of old Europe's slow and dysfunctional response to the Balkan crises of the 1990s and the apparent readiness of new Europe to support Washington's plans for removing Saddam Hussein from power, Rumsfeld's division appeared to capture not only a strategic insight for the time but also one that might shape American strategic planning into the future.

Indeed, there were reasons for such optimism about new Europe. First, as states and citizens recently freed from communist party despotism and Soviet hegemony, they were naturally inclined to stand with the United States, the leader of the free world, and to support it when opposing states or groups challenged the idea of political and economic freedom. Second, siding affirmatively with Washington was a price to be paid to keep America interested and engaged in a leadership role in European affairs. The worry was that, if the United States disengaged from Europe and turned its attention elsewhere, it would inadvertently open up a "grey area" in which the old power politics of Europe involving Moscow, Paris, and Berlin would once again come into play, possibly at the expense of the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. Implausible as it seemed at the time, the new democracies were not willing to ignore centuries of difficult history for the region. Elites in America might have thought the world had reached "the end of history," but Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs were not so sure. (4)

Quid pro Quo?

In part to maintain Washington's interest in their own security, the three new member states aligned themselves with American policies that reached well beyond their neighborhood's collective security. Each country, for example, provided forces for the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Afghanistan campaign, Czech deployments began with 350 in 2002, declining over the next few years, and then ramping up in 2007 and 2008 to a peak of about 620 troops in 2012. Hungary's force levels in Afghanistan ranged from 130 to 180 until 2008, when similarly to the Czechs, troop numbers increased to a peak of 611 in 2013. In the case of Poland, deployments to Afghanistan were initially small--between 87 and 160 from 2002 to 2007--but rose to well over 1,000 in 2008, reaching a peak of 2,580 in 2011. …

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