The Mice that Roared: Central Europe Is Reshaping Global Politics

By Wess Mitchell

It is not easy being small, especially in the world of global power politics. History has taught the Central Europeans this lesson all too well. But the young democracies of the region exert surprising clout today in the geopolitical arena. For once, they are thinking like players rather than pawns.

Prague as viewed above the Charles Bridge: Central Europe's strategic landscape has been radically transformed.
AFP

Prague as viewed above the Charles Bridge: Central Europe's strategic landscape has been radically transformed.

In international politics, being little is tough. Surrounded by larger states and unable to provide for their own security, small powers -- or puissances intermediaries, as they were called in the 18th century -- spend most of their time reacting to the actions of the powerful. At the table of geopolitics, they are lucky to have a seat. At best, they bring the silverware; more often, they are on the menu. Like the Melians in Thucydides' famous Dialogue, they must survive in a world where "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

Nowhere has the Melian predicament been more keenly felt than among the countries of Central Europe. Hemmed by geopolitical massifs to the east and west, the cluster of small and mid-sized powers between the Baltic and Black seas has a long record of strategic dependency and victimhood. On the handful of occasions when Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians have enjoyed independence, size and geography have robbed them of meaningful strategic options, leaving them to watch from the sidelines as bigger neighbors decide their fate.

Reading the recent headlines from Europe, this still would appear to be the case. Like their predecessors, the Central European members of the European Union lie at the intersection of overlapping and occasionally competing geopolitical orbits. As in the past, they spend a lot of time reacting-to Russian energy maneuvers, to EU deficit warnings, to US missile defense plans. Analysts therefore tend to view them as mainly passive elements in European politics, tugged to and fro by forces beyond their control.

But things appear to be changing. Over the last year, Central Europe's capitals have shown a surprising inclination toward independent strategic thought and action. Slowly, hesitatingly, they are finding ways to use size and geography to their advantage, defying powerful friends and foes alike in ways their predecessors could only have dreamed of. Like the fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick in Leonard Wibberley's 1955 novel The Mouse that Roared, they are discovering that, under the right conditions, weakness can carry surprising advantages. How (and whether) they use those advantages in the years ahead could have an unexpectedly decisive impact on the fate of the EU project. Though the United States has so far been the principal object of their defiance, it stands to benefit from a Central European strategic awakening.

Perils of the Petite

If the states of Central Europe have been slow to develop a voice of their own, it is for good reason. For the better part of three centuries, the region has existed only as a geographic expression -- a kind of vast geopolitical pie to be divided among Prussia, Austria, and Russia; between Nazis and Soviets; between Roosevelt and Stalin. Only on brief occasions along the way -- 1807, 1919, and 1946 -- have the region's powers ruled themselves. During these interludes, they encountered two severe geopolitical disadvantages that set them apart from large powers.

First, they had fewer strategic options. Where Europe's great powers could choose from an assortment of self-help stratagems and alliance scenarios (think of the fin-de-siècle entente shuffles), the Central Europeans held a simple, binary strategic menu. Confronted with a revisionist power, they could either stand up to it (balance) or join it (bandwagon). Too weak to play opponents against one another like Bismarck, and too exposed to ignore them like Britain, the Central Europeans had little choice but to pick a side and hope for the best.

Second, they had virtually no bargaining power vis-à-vis allies. Where larger powers could extract concessions from, or even say "no" to, powerful alliance partners, the Central Europeans held few chips with which to improve their position within the alliance. They were lucky to have allies at all. To their partners, these small geographically exposed states were security liabilities.

No matter what Central Europe did, things usually turned out badly. During the late 1930s, for example, the region split into two geopolitical camps: those like Poland and Czechoslovakia that balanced against the rising Germany and those like Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania that bandwagoned with it. Both choices ended in tragedy. The balancers were invaded by the Nazis, and then became Soviet satellites; the bandwagoners became Nazi satellites, and then were invaded by the Soviets. Like the Melians, both camps "suffered what they must."

Melian Redux?

Despite high hopes, the integration of Central Europe into the Euro-Atlantic family of institutions has not entirely mitigated these strategic dilemmas. Expectations of a post-geopolitical future in a Europe whole and free have only been partially realized. Three unexpected (and unwelcome) strategic developments, all now at full tide, block the path: the re-emergence of Russia as a great power, the slowing of the EU project, and the abatement of US interest in Europe.

Once again, the Central Europeans are caught between larger units with distinct -- and not always compatible -- plans for their region, one of which (Russia) has assumed the role of a revisionist power. Their response bears a striking similarity to Central Europe's behavior in the 1930s. Confronted with a resurgent Russia, the region has again split into two strategic camps: the balancers -- Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic States, and Romania -- who prefer to confront the threat head-on; and the bandwagoners -- Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Latvia -- who prefer to accommodate it. Thus, many analysts see the Central Europeans as the same kind of geopolitical creatures they were before-as mice, watching from the sidelines, waiting for one or the other of their larger neighbors to pull them into its orbit.

New Europe, New Chapter

But behind the headlines, things are changing. While the end of the Cold War may not have eased the region's Melian predicament to the extent many had hoped, it did bring structural changes which have dramatically improved the Central Europeans' power position vis-à-vis external actors. One is geography. As Central Europe's capitals are beginning to grasp, they sit atop a piece of real estate that is vital to all three Euro-Atlantic great powers. Without Central Europe, Russia lacks the transit routes to realize its plans of increased political influence in Western Europe. Without Central Europe, the United States lacks a mainland European site for a missile defense system needed to protect the American East Coast from nuclear attack. And without Central Europe, the European Union cannot consolidate its eastern flank and become a first-tier geopolitical player. Location -- for centuries the region's chief liability -- is becoming an asset.

Another change has to do with security. For all the very real energy threats Russia poses, it is unlikely to invade anytime soon. If it did, Central European powers now hold something they did not in the 1930s: a credible security guarantee. Despite occasional murmurings, the credibility of NATO's Article V is still widely assumed in regional capitals. For the first time in memory, the search for safety is not an overriding concern.

These changes radically transform the Central European strategic landscape. Regional powers possess something their larger neighbors need but are no longer willing or able to take by force. This gives regional powers a degree of leverage-and margin of error-unimaginable 70 years ago, loosening them from their old strategic straightjacket.

Strategic Landscape
Period Structural Reality Strategic Implication Policy Outcomes
1938 Geography = Liability High Costs of Non-Committal Diplomacy Balance or Bandwagon
Lack of Credible Security Guarantee High Costs of Saying "No" Absence of Bargaining
2008 Geography = Asset Low Costs of Non-Committal Diplomacy Hedging
Credible Security Guarantee Low Costs of Saying "No" Bargaining
Source: Mitchell

Hedging Bets

Central European governments no longer face a stark strategic choice between balancing and bandwagoning. Now, they are able to "hedge their bets," maintaining good relations with all three large neighbors and pursuing attractive strategic options as they arise. They no longer have to chase after powerful patrons: the great powers come to them. Each provides a distinct public good -- the United States, security; the European Union, structural funds; Russia, energy-the Central Europeans cannot supply on their own or get from the other two suitors.

For now, Central Europe's capitals do not have to make a lasting choice among these three suitors. In fact, they face strong incentives not to do so. They can do something unthinkable to their predecessors: engage in noncommittal diplomacy. Governments from both strategic camps, but especially the bandwagoners, now experiment with "hedging" -- betting against their preferred strategy by investing in its opposite.

Slovakia, for example, has aligned closely with Russia on missile defense and Kosovo, and acted as a saboteur to EU energy diversification plans, but sent troops to southern Afghanistan and is now investing in regional energy diversification schemes. Hungary wavered in support of US efforts to include Ukraine in NATO and supported Russia's Blue Stream pipeline, but is an avid supporter of EU involvement in Ukraine and is supporting Blue Stream's EU/US-backed competitor, Nabucco. Bulgaria-Russia's "Trojan horse in the European Union," as one Russian minister put it-is also an enthusiastic host for US military bases.

Hard Bargaining

The Central Europeans have a vastly expanded scope for strategic bargaining. They can exact a premium for their support and say "no" if the price is not met. In negotiations with the United States on missile defense, Warsaw has had greater leverage over Washington than any Central European state has ever had over a great power-certainly more than it had over Paris or London in the 1930s.

This leverage is possible only because the Poles know even their most defiant actions will not jeopardize the US security guarantee. Their reasoning is similar to Wibberley's Grand Duchy of Fenwick, whose leaders calculated they had nothing to lose and everything to gain from launching a symbolic (and comical) "invasion" of the United States. If Washington ignored their attack, they lost nothing; if it paid attention, they might get some extra loot (reconstruction aid).

The Fenwickian logic was used by America's Asian allies during the Vietnam War. Asked to contribute troops, South Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines demanded bribes. Though the war was ostensibly being fought for their safety, these countries were able to defy -- and extort -- Washington in the knowledge that they ran no risk of forfeiting US protection.

A similar rationale guides Central European behavior in the European Union. Knowing their membership is secure no matter what, Central Europe routinely uses obstructionist behavior to block or modify EU policies. Poland fought the entire European Union to a standstill over voting rights. Tiny Lithuania has twice impeded EU-Russia agreements. In their first three years as members, Central Europeans have attempted to block 15 percent of all Commission proposals. Of these, Poland contested a whopping 17, Slovakia 11 and Latvia 10.

This is a very different Central Europe than the one held hostage to great -- power politics so many times in the past. Though still small and materially weak, Central Europe has new sources of leverage with which to avoid the old strategic cul-de-sacs. With this new potential, however, come risks.

Myopic Mouse Syndrome

One is what might be called the "myopic mouse syndrome." As Central European political elites awaken to their increased leverage, they may employ it in pursuit of the handful of goals that matter most to them, while using smallness as an excuse to ignore the big picture. As political scientist Robert Keohane wrote about Taiwan, "they may concentrate on a narrow range of vital interests and ignore almost everything else-disregarding or heavily discounting the effects of (their) actions on the stability of international politics in general."

A second risk is that Central European bargaining will lapse into rent seeking. Already, many policymakers in the United States and the European Union complain about an increasingly extractive tendency among Central Europe's capitals. This perception could fuel the desire in some Western European capitals to build a core Europe excluding the easterners and strengthen the voice of those in Washington who, frustrated with Poland over missile defense, say America should bypass the Central Europeans on important strategic issues.

This would be unfortunate. For as painful as it may seem at present, the United States and the European Union are likely to be net winners from Central Europe's strategic awakening. As US involvement in Europe fades, Washington will need like-minded partners in the European Union -- the more vocal the better. Likewise, the European Union will be better served if, during its ongoing state of introspection, the exposed members on its eastern fringe are strategically self aware-and even activist-than if they are paralyzed by an exaggerated sense of the old insecurities.

In both cases, Central European self-confidence must be channeled in the right direction. While this will require some effort on the part of the United States and the European Union, the main burden of responsibility rests with Central Europe. In the years ahead, one thing above all else will be required of them: maturity. Political elites in Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, and Bucharest must resist the temptation to use their countries' newfound leverage for short-term electoral purposes. In relations with the United States, states in the region should focus less on acquiring baubles that can be consumed in the immediate domestic political cycle -- as Poland has done on missile defense -- and more on obtaining support for serious, strategic goals on items where Central Europe and US long-term interests overlap, like energy security and Belarus/Ukraine. Similarly, in the European Union, they should devote their cumulative clout not to obstructing Commission proposals, but to galvanizing European Union-wide opinion on those issues where something approaching a Central European consensus already exists-like energy security, neighborhood policy, and the global democracy agenda.

How the Central Europeans fare will provide an early indication of the role that other small powers are able to play in the coming multipolar world order. With a declining United States, struggling Europe, and resurgent Russia, the unfolding Euro-Atlantic power triangle is a microcosm of the multipolar order ahead. If the Central European experiences are any clue, small powers may have a greater ability to shape this new system than they had in previous structural environments. Unlike bipolarity, where small powers were mice following one of two pied pipers, or unipolarity, where they did not matter, in a multipolar system they may be the critical "votes" that great powers must attract.

For the Central Europeans, this brings liberation from the old binary security dilemmas, but also the challenge to think like players rather than pawns. If they can do this, they may be able for the first time in recent history to achieve a lasting and positive impact on Europe's future -- a fittingly loud roar for some of history's most ill treated mice.

To read the footnotes that accompany this article, please visit IP Web site.

Wess Mitchell is director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington-based institute dedicated to the study of Central Europe.

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