During the Cold War, Romania confused all of us. Long after brutality in other communist countries declined, Romania remained a state that employed levels of violence best compared to North Korea today. Nicolae Ceausescu, referred to by admirers as the Genius of the Carpathians, ruled Romania with a ruthless irrationality. Government policies left the country cold and dark, and everyday items readily available just a few kilometers south in Bulgaria were rarities in Romania. At the same time — and this was the paradox — Romania was hostile and uncooperative with the Soviets. Bucharest refused to submit to Moscow, and this did not compute for many of us. Resistance to Soviet power, in our minds, meant liberalization, like what we saw in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But not in Romania; Romania played a different game.
Romania is an inward-looking country that longs to be better integrated into the international system — a difficult posture to maintain. Each time I return to Romania, I watch this struggle unfold. If Bucharest was an exception in the Soviet bloc, it is now finding it much harder than countries such as Poland to adapt to Europe. For Romania, becoming normal means becoming part of Europe, and that means joining the European Union and NATO. The idea of not being fully accepted in Brussels creates real angst in Bucharest. When I point out the obvious difficulties affecting both institutions and suggest that membership may not be the best solution for Romania, I am firmly rebuffed. They remember something I sometimes forget: After the insanity of Ceausescu, they need to be European. No matter how flawed Europe is today, the thought of being isolated as they once were is unbearable.
The United States plays a unique role in the culture of countries like Romania. My parents in Hungary, the country next door to Romania, listened to Voice of America in 1944. When they heard of the Allied landing in Normandy, they thought they were saved from the Germans and Soviets. They were not, but it was the Americans — noble and invincible in their imaginations — in whom my parents placed their hope. Throughout the Cold War, Eastern Europeans listened to VOA and imagined liberation from the Soviets. When that liberation finally came in 1989, it was unclear whether and to what degree the Americans had precipitated the Soviet collapse. It remains unclear, but in Eastern Europe and in Romania, the concept of liberation is fixed, and despite all of their concern for the European Union, the United States remains the redeemer.
This region is perhaps the last place in the world where the United States is still seen as noble and invincible. Power is complex — the more of it you gain, the more ambiguous you become. For a growing power, there is a moment before the exercise of responsibility in which you appear perfect. You have not yet done anything that requires ruthlessness or brutality, but you have shown strength. That was the image of the United States during the two world wars. As the United States started to mature, the world discovered that power distorts even the best of wills. But in Eastern Europe, the original sense of the United States, though certainly tattered and somewhat worn by the complexities of real power, is still a moving force. In my view, the relationship between the United States and Romania needs to be nurtured, not through showcase projects of little impact but through a substantial development of economic and military relations. This might not sound glamorous, but it would address the national security interests of both sides.
My view on Romania’s place in the world apparently does not sit well with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Romanian President Traian Basescu. My discussions with these leaders are a tale worth telling, since they have led me on a true geopolitical journey.
During my visit to Romania, I met with Basescu, Prime Minister Victor Ponta and other notables. I also gave a talk at the National Bank of Romania. During these meetings, I made arguments that are familiar to my readers. I argued that the post-Cold War world is over and that Romania needs to vastly lower its expectations as to what membership in the European Union would mean. I told Romanian leaders they should be relieved that Romania has its own currency. I also argued that NATO has neither a common intent nor the military capability to act jointly, since most of Europe’s militaries lack the ability to carry out sustained military operations. NATO is not an alliance but merely a grouping of countries — a coalition of the willing who for the most part, as seen in Libya and Mali, are not very willing.
I further argued that the Russians are not pursuing their national interests by military force. Rather, Moscow is taking advantage of the weakness of the European Union to foster a web of commercial relationships in the countries of old Eastern Europe, creating an economic fait accompli. It follows that Romania’s national security interests would be better served by U.S. investment — particularly in the strategic energy and mineral sector — than by reliance on the European Union or NATO.
The Romanians understand the weakness of these alliances. Yet for all of Europe’s disarray, Romania’s belief in Europe runs deep. Belief in a European economic bloc, and in a North Atlantic alliance that includes the United States, is a fundamental tenet of Romania’s political culture. Perhaps the biggest current concern for Romanian leaders, though, and one that dominated many of my conversations, is the development in Europe of a ballistic missile defense system.
The Full Spectrum of Military Support
The United States has allowed a missile defense program based in Europe to become the leading symbol of American commitment to the region. Eastern Europeans in particular see the basing of that system as a sign of American commitment, even if it is not specifically intended to shield the country in which it is based. The theory is that anywhere the United States sets up an installation, American troops will be there to protect it. Washington’s thinking on the defense shield has been in flux since the Bush administration. Evolving technology has opened the door for alternative basing, but the Romanians sense another reason for the shift: The Russians object deeply to the program. While their missiles could easily overwhelm the system, the Russians believe, along with Eastern Europeans, that the program is simply the first phase of American deployment along the frontiers of the Russian sphere of influence. The Americans have no wish to confront the Russians over what for Washington is a marginal issue, and they are constantly looking for ways out of the commitment.
This rattles nerves in the region, particularly as the European Union disintegrates. I argued that the missile shield should not be seen as the only measure of American commitment. Romania