When Bucharest granted America access to its airspace early in the Iraq war, Washington granted Romania its coveted designation as a "functional market economy." And when Bucharest cosponsored a US push for Iraqi sovereignty at the United Nations, Washington agreed to locate lucrative US bases on Romania's Black Sea coast.
In each instance, Romanian assistance was matched – usually within one or two months – by US backing for a specific Romanian interest. By contrast, for years the Poles have watched their leaders fly to Washington seeking help – on oil contracts, military aid, visas – only to come away empty-handed. Hence the desire for upfront perks in the talks this week on missile defense.
Second, Washington has been careful to maintain the appearance of an equal relationship with Romania. In negotiations over US bases, the Bush administration stressed that ultimate sovereignty for the installations would rest with Bucharest. As David McKiernan, America's top Army general in Europe, often told the press, "We are guests, tenants." Such humility was necessary, Washington knew, for Bucharest to convince its citizens they were partners rather than pawns of US policy.
Failure to take a similar tack with Poland has done much to fuel problems on missile defense. By failing to consult Warsaw and Prague before offering Russian observers access to the bases, Washington unwittingly tapped into a deep-seated regional fear of being "talked over" by the Great Powers. As a former Polish diplomat told me, the move confirmed that America views Poland "as a playground rather than a player."