Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Romania.
The Ukraine crisis that erupted in November 2013 left Romanian diplomacy in a state of apathy, with a lack of foreign policy projects and qualified staff.
The aims that Romania’s political class and public opinion had laid out for the country’s diplomacy were to join NATO and the EU—goals that were achieved in 2004 and 2007 respectively. Since then, against the background of an extremely stormy political life, Romania’s political parties have not been able to agree on any other major diplomatic projects.
Romania’s foreign policy ambitions are limited to aspects of regional security policy, giving Bucharest a modest score of 2 out of 5.
As a country on the Eastern edge of NATO and the EU, Romania spends most of its diplomatic resources on national security. Since the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008, any foreign policy project—be it the introduction of a new government platform or the annual meeting between Romania’s president and ambassadors—invariably begins with a mention of Bucharest’s strategic partnership with the United States. This accord remains the cornerstone of Romanian national security—all the more so nowadays, when the Ukraine crisis is perceived as a major threat to Romania’s security.
In the late 2000s, Romania’s national security strategy was based on a structural reading of European trends. Bucharest’s mind-set reflected the cleavage of Old Europe versus New Europe, the conviction that Atlanticist powers were the real security guarantors of Europe’s Eastern flank, and a strategic reality that favored a Romanian special relationship with the United States and the UK.
However, Europe is changing. The UK is pivoting away from New Europe, becoming more inward looking and insular than ever, while Germany has increasingly assumed the role of Europe’s so-called indispensable nation.
This sea change is preparing the ground for a Romanian rebalancing toward Old Europe. Berlin has effectively displaced London in Bucharest’s foreign policy priorities and outlook. This transformation is underscored by the election in November 2014 of a new president, Klaus Iohannis, with German sensitivities and a German background.
Today more than ever, Romania has developed the mentality of a frontline state, together with Poland and the Baltic countries. Romania is the closest NATO and EU member state to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March 2014. At a time when Russia has effectively become the spoiler in chief of the European security order, regional forces are pushing Poland and Romania more than ever before in the direction of a coalition of the interested.
#Romania has the mentality of a frontline state.Tweet This
Bucharest and Warsaw have a common foundation to build on. Symbolically, for years Romania followed a Polish pathway in security affairs without recognizing Polish leadership as such. Both countries are Atlanticists that see Washington as the ultimate guarantor of their security and that act as bridgeheads for the U.S. forward presence on Europe’s Eastern flank. That presence includes the U.S. missile defense system, which is hosted in Romania and Poland and is perceived as a strategic reassurance.
In October 2009, Bucharest and Warsaw signed a strategic partnership. The agreement was late in launching, but its defense and security components became more significant with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Diplomatic circles in Bucharest, Warsaw, and Kiev envisage trilateral formulas for cooperation.
Now, the time has come for Poland and Romania to work together to push NATO to develop its own anti-access and area-denial strategy for the Eastern flank from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Such a strategy would include layers of access-denial platforms capable of securing the cluster of ports, airfields, and other infrastructure needed for NATO expeditionary reinforcements. Bucharest and Warsaw should also encourage the alliance to rebalance its outdated defense-in-depth posture, which is based on the highly permissive environment of the 1990s.
The Ukraine crisis on its Eastern border notwithstanding, Romania feels safer than in the past. That is due to the fact that the country’s security is underwritten by NATO’s Article 5 collective defense umbrella, and even more so due to Romania’s strategic partnerships with the United States and Poland.
An additional strategic partnership is also being discussed, between Romania and Ukraine. This is a complex undertaking, given the loaded bilateral agenda and two decades of litigation, some of which is the result of erroneous perceptions.
Equally emotional is the Romanian view of Moldova, which has been extremely slow in implementing reforms despite signing a political and economic Association Agreement with the EU in 2014. Moldova’s territory, with the exception of the separatist region of Transnistria, was a part of the Kingdom of Romania between the two world wars and was handed over to the Soviet Union in 1940 without a shot being fired.
This history has generated a fuzzy sense of guilt among the political elite in Bucharest—a feeling that survives to this day. Money, time, and energy have been spent over the last few years to bring Moldova as close as possible to the EU. But a spate of corruption scandals combined with the slow pace of reform have played into the hands of Moldova’s Socialist Party, which is anti-EU and favors the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.
There is a debate in Romania over what kind of neighborhood policy would be to Bucharest’s advantage. Some believe that Romania’s status as a border country of the EU and NATO allows Bucharest to have a better image in Brussels and gain more political, economic, and military dividends.
Others believe that expanding NATO and the EU to the East would generate longer-term benefits by making the region safer and sparing Romania the stress of direct threats. That would enable Bucharest to focus its limited resources on reform and development.
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This focus on reform is a requirement imposed by the European Commission’s cooperation and verification mechanism. The commission set up this system when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 to monitor the progress the two countries still had to make on the rule of law.
Even though Romanian officials aim to remove the mechanism, significant parts of Romanian public opinion and civil society believe that not enough progress has been made on reforms. Mistakes made by governments can be more easily contained with the mechanism’s virtuous straitjacket than without it, helping to avoid occurrences such as the deterioration of the rule of law seen in neighboring Hungary. At a time when corruption is a national security vulnerability for Romania and a tool of hybrid warfare, the cooperation and verification mechanism may be Bucharest’s first line of defense.
In sum, the annexation of Crimea has forced Romania to rely even more on its strategic partnerships with the United States and Poland and to press for greater NATO visibility on Romanian territory. The nightmare most feared by the diplomatic elite in Bucharest is a U.S. withdrawal from Europe, a rapprochement between Berlin and Moscow, and a rearrangement of the post–Cold War order in Central and Eastern Europe. In such a scenario, states such as Romania would only be the object of deals between larger neighboring powers.
Armand Goșu is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Bucharest.
Octavian Manea is a journalist who writes for Revista 22 and Foreign Policy Romania.