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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A New Europe, Divided

On Monday, U.S. President George W. Bush marked NATO's recent inclusion of seven new member states from Central and Eastern Europe by hosting the leaders of those former communist nations at a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. Also invited were the leaders of Albania, Croatia and Macedonia -- Balkan countries that aspire to join the alliance. This significant event in Europe's evolution took place just one month before Europe's other major institution, the European Union, enlarges by 10 countries, eight of which are formerly communist.

The momentous changes signal that the vision for the continent that was developed by the United States, its Western allies and these new partners in the early 1990s has been fulfilled remarkably in the 15 years since the Berlin Wall fell. Unfortunately, while the Iron Curtain is thankfully no more, a new division is emerging. Except for the three Baltic nations, the former Soviet Union (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus, Moldova and Central Asia) is not on the path to integration with the West. We neglect this growing divide at our peril.

During the 1990s we seemed well on our way to helping our old allies and our new partners create what George H.W. Bush called a Europe whole and free. Central and East European countries developed the institutions and policies that have enabled them to join the EU and/or NATO; the United States and its NATO partners first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo helped stabilize the Balkans -- a stability that remains fragile -- and the Western countries developed a growing partnership with Russia.

But the vision for a Europe whole and free has stalled at the border of the former Soviet Union. Russia has become increasingly authoritarian under President Vladimir Putin, and Ukraine's government has failed to carry out serious political and economic reform.

Georgia has just undergone its "Rose Revolution," but newly elected President Mikheil Saakashvili faces enormous challenges to bring his country closer to European norms. Elsewhere, from Belarus to Azerbaijan across to Central Asia, political and economic competition is nowhere in sight.

Given the expansion of freedom in most of Europe and the development of new American partners such as Poland and Romania, does it matter that the original vision remains unfulfilled?

Yes. A geographic area from northeastern Europe across to Central Asia will at best be populated by countries that are quasi-democracies and partially market-oriented. It could easily become a continuous bloc of authoritarian governments on whose territory is located nuclear material and scientists with the know-how to proliferate it, human traffickers and groups with links to al-Qaida.

A central element in U.S. strategy in the 1990s was to help promote democracy and a market economy in Russia to foster its integration into Western institutions. A central premise was that if Russia integrated, it would be easier to connect with the rest of the former Soviet Union. But while Russia under Putin has sought good relations with the United States and Europe, it has no wish to join institutions run by Western countries.

The United States and its partners should renew their focus on integrating other former Soviet states, in particular Ukraine and Georgia, into Europe. Both have tried to balance expressing an interest in membership in NATO (and perhaps down the road in the EU) with not provoking Russia (which continues to see these countries as in its sphere of influence). The United States grew increasingly frustrated with both countries in the 1990s. Western assistance seemed wasted, and patience grew thin. But now is not the time to give up. Not only has Georgia had its recent revolution, but Ukraine's presidential election in the autumn bears the prospect of a new reform leadership.

It would be tempting to conclude, as NATO and the EU enlarge this spring, that with so many problems elsewhere in the world, the United States should turn its attention away from Europe and toward the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and other hot spots. But fostering a Europe whole and free is as vital a U.S. national interest as it was when the Cold War ended.

James M. Goldgeier is director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This comment first appeared in The Washington Post.