Vice President Biden left Washington early on October 20 for a quick trip to Central Europe, where he will visit Warsaw, Bucharest and Prague. The main purpose of the Vice President’s travel is to reassure the region – which for much of the past 15 years has been at the center of U.S. foreign policy – of continued American interest and support.

As the Clinton administration launched the NATO enlargement process in the mid-1990s, the countries of Central Europe found themselves at the top of Washington’s security agenda.  The United States saw enlargement as the means to bring the former Warsaw Pact states into a free, democratic and stable Europe.  Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary received invitations in 1997 to join NATO; the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia received invitations in 2002.  Washington hoped that, by anchoring these states in institutions such as NATO and the European Union, they would gain confidence in their security … and require less U.S. attention in the future.

Several factors, however, have shaken that confidence.  Moscow has pursued a more assertive foreign policy over the past several years, which peaked in 2008 with the conflict between Russia and Georgia.  While Western European states have shown less angst about Russian behavior, memories of Soviet domination linger in Central Europe.  Those countries, closer to Russia’s borders, are more sensitive to Russian actions.

This concern points up a larger problem within NATO. The fact that Poland presses so hard to have U.S. troops deployed on its territory – be they to man anti-missile or Patriot anti-aircraft systems – reflects a Polish lack of confidence in Article V of the NATO treaty, the provision that provides for the alliance’s collective defense.    

The Obama administration’s effort to “reset” relations with Moscow generated further worries that the new policy might come at the expense of Central Europe, despite persistent administration assurances that “reset” would not come at the expense of third countries or mean acceptance of a Russian sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space.

Finally, the administration’s decision last month to reconfigure missile defense in Central Europe caused great concern there. It was not so much the substance of the decision, but Washington badly mishandled the roll-out, both with allies and the public – something that administration officials now privately acknowledge. The press reports the morning of September 17 should have read “U.S. reconfigures Central European missile defense plans,” not “U.S. cancels Central European missile defense deployment.”

The vice president’s principal task will be to soothe these concerns and reassure Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic, as well as the broader Central European region, of continued U.S. engagement. He can explain U.S. thinking on the missile defense architecture and make clear what “reset” with Russia means (and what it does not mean). He can also talk about the strategic concept now being discussed within NATO. But the most important thing is that he is showing up.