Eastern European Defense Review: Two Defense Secretaries and the “New Europe”

Jun 28, 2011


By Peter Kiss

“New Europe” became a popular term to categorize those European countries (the vast majority of them from the former Eastern Bloc) who expressed their stalwart support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time, policymakers in Washington hoped these new “Atlanticist” countries would reenergize transatlantic relations and become able and willing allies for future NATO and coalition operations. Eight years later, in light of current events in Libya, it’s worthwhile to reevaluate where the Central Eastern European (CEE) pillar of “New Europe” stands now.


In 2002-2003 European foreign policy was divided over how to deal with Iraq. France and Germany—often referred to as the “engines of the EU”—were against an invasion and wanted the UN inspection process to play out. Other EU members such as Denmark, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom, often referred to as “Atlanticist” Europeans, supported the United States’ assessment of the situation. Meanwhile, CEE states, many of them aspiring members of NATO and/or the EU, wanted to increase their visibility in Washington by sending supporting messages through diplomatic channels. This apparent division in Europe culminated in a press interview in 2003 with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who in answering a question about European support said the following:

“You are thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't. I think that's old Europe…If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east. And there are a lot of new members.”

On 30 January 2003, just days after the Rumsfeld interview, Atlanticist governments signed the “Letter of Eight” in which three aspiring EU candidates, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, joined the coalition of Denmark, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom to express support for the United States' ambition of régime change in Iraq. This statement was soon followed by the so-called “Vilnius-letter” on 6 February 2003 in which Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovakia signed a similar statement. Generally speaking, in early 2003, the former Eastern Bloc allied with the Atlanticist EU members and formed a new ad-hoc coalition. Conservative analysts were quick to announce that Europe is divided between "old" and "new," between those who view Europe as a counterweight to American military adventurism and those who recognized American power as a guardian of democracy and freedom.

It is now obvious that countries in the Central and Eastern part of “New Europe” offered their support in exchange for the United States’ political support towards their Euro-Atlantic integration. After the high-intensity phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom concluded in April 2003, troop contributions from "New Europe" started pouring into Iraq totaling around 5,000-6,000 soldiers at its peak. The U.S. rewarded these “new allies” with military aid, loans, and investment opportunities in Iraq and inter alia abolished visa-requirements for the citizens of most former Eastern Bloc countries. Even though finding a direct connection between CEE troop contributions and reciprocal U.S. political support is difficult, it is likely that Washington used its influence to accelerate the timetable of these countries’ accession into the Euro-Atlantic system.  Consequently, by 2004 and in the following years, most signers of the two letters were invited to join either the EU, NATO, or both.

Central Eastern “New Europe” in Libya

Eight years after Rumsfeld’s famous speech, the next U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, also reflected on Europe, but from a completely different angle.  In his farewell speech in Brussels the retiring Gates spoke of a “dim if not dismal” future for the transatlantic alliance. Furthermore he warned of the possibility of NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance “between members who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions. Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership – be they security guarantees or headquarters billets – but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.”

While “New European” nations should be commended for deploying around 7,500 troops to NATO’s ISAF mission and are committed to Afghanistan until 2014 under the “in together, out together” strategy, most of these nations operate only in relatively calm provinces under national limitations or “caveats”. As Gates put it, this practice “ties the hands of allied commanders in sometimes infuriating ways.”  Moreover, many CEE contingents face significant equipment shortfalls and rely on “Old European” or U.S. assistance in many operational aspects.

Their contribution to Operation Unified Protector in Libya is even less promising.  Gates mentioned that “while every alliance member voted for Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission.“ From the Eastern nations of “New Europe” the only participants are Romania and Bulgaria which offered frigates, the Regele Ferdinand and Drazki, to patrol the Mediterranean Sea and enforce the UN arms embargo. Both frigates were offered for three months, but after just over one month of deployment the Drazki had to return to port due to the fact that Bulgaria had no more funding to extend its mission. Although all nations have civilian and military personnel integrated into various elements of the NATO command structure, the Bulgarian withdrawal leaves Romania as the sole visible CEE contributor in Libya.

The prerequisites of successful NATO cooperation
In order to successfully participate in high-tempo NATO operations, member states need to be able to check three boxes. First, they must have the required capability in terms of weapon systems, training, and the ability to cooperate with other NATO members (interoperable equipment, procedures, communications, etc.). Second, they need to have adequate funding to sustain their operations for a prolonged period of time. And third, nations should have the political will to commit their capabilities and funds for an alliance mission. These three prerequisites are equally important and have to be present at the same time; however, there are significant differences in the timeframe of “generating” each of them.  It takes years to build up credible military capabilities, weeks to reallocate funding for missions, and hours to make a decision and put political will behind a contribution.


In his farewell speech Gates lamented that, “many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t.  The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”  This is the point where Eastern “new European” nations start feeling uneasy. Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland have frigate-sized or larger vessels in their navies, while three nations —Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary—have 4th generation, NATO compatible jet-aircraft with in-flight refueling capability that theoretically could contribute to the enforcement of the no-fly zone. Theoretically, because the operational capability only exists in Poland, a nation which was singled out (along with the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and Turkey) by Gates as a nation not pulling its weight in Libya.  Having adequate military equipment on paper points toward one crucial factor of capabilities: Are they theoretical or operational capabilities?

In 2001, Hungary signed a contract with Sweden for the JAS-39 Gripen jet-aircraft, strictly in air policing configuration. The initial contract for the 14 planes would have allowed pilots to have an average of 100 flight hours annually, which is the threshold for pilots to acquire or retain their skills. This contract was later modified in 2003 by adding ground attack and in-flight refueling capabilities to the aircraft, but the increased price tag reduced the purchased hours for pilots to 80 each year. Clearly, “doing more with less” does not apply in this situation. Moreover, the 10-year lease which started in 2006 consumes the vast majority of the annual modernization spending of the Hungarian Defense Force leaving no room for other significant acquisitions. This is a clear example of how bad planning for generating capabilities can sap armed forces for several years.

Gates said that in Libya “intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets are lacking that would allow more allies to be involved and make an impact.”  This is where Hungary could participate, given that the country has acquired LITENING precision targeting pods for its aircrafts which is currently used for reconnaissance by the Swedish Gripens assisting NATO’s Libya mission. Similarly, the Czechs also fly the JAS-39, but only in air policing configuration, therefore their participation would be limited to enforcement of the no-fly zone. However, the involvement of these two nations would give the NATO mission broader support, and would take some burden off of other nations’ shoulders. Thereby those pilots who are conducting strike sorties could focus more on those crucial duties and leave reconnaissance and patrol for “new allies”.


Even if the capabilities are there, such as in the case of Poland, which has the most modern F-16s in Europe with a high variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, in-flight refueling, and well-trained pilots, funding can still be a problem. Gates said that “total European defense spending declined, by one estimate, by nearly 15 percent in the decade following 9/11 [...]while demands of training and equipping for Afghan deployments has consumed an ever growing share of already meager defense budgets”. The same situation applies for all CEE countries, including Poland where President Komorowski also noted that “the rising cost of the war in Afghanistan is hampering a program to modernize the [Polish] military”. Clearly, declining defense spending and sustainment of Afghan deployments does not allow additional elbow room for most “new European” countries. The explanation behind the withdrawal of the Drazki frigate form the Mediterranean was that "Bulgaria does not have the financial resources to extend the frigate's mission. These are expenditures, which were not planned in advance." The reasoning of Defense Minister Anyu Angelov is understandable, but the fact that CEE countries, in most cases, are unable to allocate funds for unforeseen events is unfortunate as the global security environment and NATO’s involvement in future missions is likely to remain unpredictable. Other than Albania who made it to the “magical five” when it comes to NATO’s two percent GDP threshold, in many cases, the military spending of Eastern “new Europeans” does not significantly exceed one percent of their GDP.

Political Will

This is the only area where the activities of “new Europeans” are on par with their “old” counterparts. All nations endorsed the UNSC Resolution 1973 and all official communiqués from foreign ministries called for Gaddafi to step down. However as most nations did not have the capability and/or the funding to assist NATO’s mission they started specializing “in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks,” mentioned by Gates. Inter alia, Hungary still maintains its Embassy in Tripoli as the official liaison of the European Union and the United States towards Gaddafi’s regime, however most of their undertakings happening "under-the-radar" if such activities happen at all. The assistance for a post-conflict Libya, where most “silent” nations are pledging to show their support, has yet to materialize. Through formal and informal channels such as the aforementioned Gates speech or from former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Czech President Václav Havel, many Eastern “new European” governments have been criticized for taking a rather neutral stance in Libya.


Eight years after Rumsfeld’s speech it is clear that the Eastern pillar of “new Europe” does not exist, at least not in the sense the former Secretary outlined. NATO’s center of gravity did not shift to the east. On the contrary, it has shifted in the opposite direction in the past two decades with the U.S. share of NATO defense spending having risen from 50 percent to more than 75 percent. Central and Eastern Europe’s silence when it comes to offering capabilities, Germany’s abstention from conducting high-intensity missions, in contrast with the recent Franco-British leadership in Libya further implies that a shift has indeed happened westward. Currently, Gates’ two tiered alliance is rather three tiered. The nations in the first tier, such as the U.S., UK, and France, have a wide spectrum of capabilities and the requisite political will to use them. The second tier includes countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland who also have significant capabilities but less willing to commit them fully to NATO operations. The third tier includes most of the “new allies” and characterized by a serious lack of credible, operational capabilities. The distribution of these nations follows a rather west-east geographical posture at the moment. These developments should act as a wakeup call for many CEE governments. Twelve years after the first nations of the former Eastern Bloc joined NATO, militaries in the region, aside from Poland, are unable to cooperate successfully with allies on the most sophisticated levels. As mentioned earlier, generating credible capabilities can take years, and Central Eastern Europe does not have another decade to lose. If CEE leaders are not willing to address critical shortfalls and start pulling their weight, “New Europe” will become a synonym for freeloaders.

The New European Democracies blog keeps a spotlight on current events in Central, South, and Eastern Europe and beyond, with original content by staff and guest commentary from experts. Intended to promote free debate and the exchange of ideas, the blog does not represent the opinion of the New European Democracies Project or the Lavrentis Lavrentiadis Chair in Southeast European Studies. The views expressed are solely those of the author.