Vice President Joe Biden is no Dick Cheney, but over the last nine months, he's carved out a highly visible role for himself on foreign policy, often moving against the zeitgeist in the administration. As President Obama's advisers push for a surge in Afghanistan, Biden has argued for minimizing American involvement. And while he's had his finger on the "reset button" with Russia from day one, he has been suspicious of the former superpower and much more solicitous of the concerns of its neighbors.
It is natural, then, that he has become Obama's unofficial envoy to former Soviet bloc countries, a task he continues today as he sets off for Warsaw. Biden's four-day trip to Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania follows his July trip to Georgia and Ukraine and a May visit to the Balkans.
On these tours, Biden alternately took swipes at Russia and let fly some of his trademark irreverence. And just as he sought to reassure Ukraine that the administration still supports NATO membership for that country, experts say Biden will again need to don his firefighter's hat this week. Warsaw and Prague -- where anti-Russian feelings run high, especially among political conservatives -- are both reeling from the Obama administration's decision last month to scrap a deal, forged under President Bush, to host ballistic missile interceptors.
While the uproar in those countries has ebbed, the episode raised new questions about the relationship between the U.S. and Central and Eastern Europe as Washington tries to improve relations with Russia. The move seemingly confirmed the fears of more than 20 former heads of state, top officials and ambassadors from the region who in July wrote a public letter to Obama worrying that resetting relations with Moscow might "lead to the wrong concessions to Russia."
"This is a delicate time for Central Europe," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They're not sure where they fit."
In particular, Poland's disappointment over the anti-missile project's termination is rooted in its own insecurities about NATO, argued Steven Pifer, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000.
"I think it's a reflection that there's a lack of confidence in Article 5 of NATO," he said of the clause that guarantees the coalition will come to the aid of any member nation in distress. "They wanted U.S. troops in Poland as an additional sign that, if there's a problem, they will have outside support."
Enter Biden, who in three-plus decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee won himself goodwill in the region by supporting the expansion of NATO and encouraging American intervention during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. More than that, his penchant for unfiltered expression has had the effect of reassuring former Soviet states that U.S. support hasn't wavered. The State Department was miffed when he derided the Russian economy as "withering" and rejected the notion of a Russian "sphere of influence" during his last trip to the region, but those comments played far better in the capitals of Central and Eastern Europe.
"This is why he's loved in that part of the world," Conley said. "He's very forthright. I think he's the right messenger for this region."
Andras Simonyi worked with Biden as Hungary's ambassador to NATO in the late 1990s, when Prague was vying for membership in the organization and Biden was pleading the case loudly in the Senate.
"I'm very pleased that his expertise is influencing U.S. policy," said Simonyi, who was also Hungary's ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2007.
Biden's role as a bridge to the region is critical. Unlike Western Europe, former Soviet satellite states were slow to warm to Obama, even before the missile shield kerfuffle. Bush's approval rating in Western Europe in 2008 was 17 percent, compared to 86 percent for Obama in 2009, according to the German Marshall Fund's annual Transatlantic Trends survey, released last month. Bush's approval rating in Central and Eastern Europe was 32 percent in 2008, and Obama increased that mark to 64 percent in 2009 -- still a remarkable gain, but not nearly as large.
The Bush administration was simply very good to Central and Eastern Europe. Missile defense and the continued expansion of NATO signaled a willingness to collaborate. Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and others in turn joined the "coalition of the willing," earning the region the moniker "New Europe."
"It would be a big lie to say it didn't feel good," Simonyi said of the "New Europe" tag.
But the attention lavished on the region by the Bush administration anesthetized Central and Eastern Europe to the growing reality that the region simply doesn't hold the same strategic interest for the U.S. that it once did. During the Cold War, the region was on the front lines. Now, it's just another part of the world competing for America's attention.
"It's like, 'Welcome to being a normal country,'" said Susanne Lotarski, vice president of public relations for the Polish American Congress, a lobbying group.
The foreign policy establishment in those countries is under no illusions that with two wars, a recession and a sprawling domestic agenda, Central and Eastern Europe are high on Obama's to-do list. Daniel Kostoval, the deputy chief of mission at the Czech embassy, said he hoped the administration took away from the missile defense flap that clear communication, regardless of its content, is key.
"I think emotions from the day after are already over," he said. "What stayed is that, of course, people in our region want to hear first-hand what the core of the current administration's approach to strategic issues -- the approach to the Russian Federation -- will be."
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been eager to counter any suggestions that it is leaving Central and Eastern European allies out in the cold.
"We've been very clear from day one that we are seeking to improve relations with Russia, but not at the expense of any of our partners -- our partnerships," said Tony Blinken, Biden's national security adviser, in a conference call Monday. "And the view we have is that any improvement in U.S.-Russian relations can only improve security in Europe, and will -- to the benefit of all our allies."
Russia looms large in the imaginations of Central and Eastern Europe. Moscow has used its natural gas supplies to punish countries that cross it, most recently shutting off gas to Ukraine in January, ostensibly for a pricing dispute. But that move also kept natural gas from flowing to Western European countries, which protested the decision. A new proposed pipeline would cut through the Baltic Sea straight to Western Europe, meaning Russia could shut off the gas only to former Soviet satellite states, who would have less political leverage.
Meanwhile, though Biden may be the best man for the trip, Obama's decision to send him carries diplomatic liabilities. Biden's comment that Russia's economy was "withering," for example, had to be walked back by the State Department. Is he simply an envoy and sometimes firefighter for the White House, or could his loose tongue be the vice president's way of tempering the administration's detente with Russia?
Pifer, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, says it's a mistake to read too much into Biden's words.
"I think those comments were analytically correct," he said. "It's a separate issue as to whether he should have made them."
There's also the possibility that his visit could go too well. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili overestimated American support for his government in the summer of 2008, which encouraged him to challenge Moscow and eventually provoke an invasion. Given Biden's penchant for saying what allies want to hear, it's possible Poland and the Czech Republic could similarly overestimate where the U.S.-Central Europe alliance stands and be disappointed down the line.
In the end, the Obama administration might learn that, as with domestic politics, it is impossible to be friends with everybody.
Artemy Kalinovsky is a fellow at the Centre for Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.