If you want to understand this year's expansion of the European Union and NATO, go to Berlin.
Fifteen years ago, the Berlin Wall, approximately 96 miles of concrete and soldiers, was the symbol of the Cold War. When I visited this spring, my taxi driver had to tell me to "imagine" where the wall had stood. Today, the new building in the center of Berlin means you literally need a historical map to find its path.
In some ways, the reunification of Berlin, and of Germany, is a special case. It was political and economic integration within one country. And it happened quickly after the fall of communism.
But the metaphor of two returning to one is nearly perfect for the wider European story: Western Europe and Eastern Europe are once again simply Europe.
Much of the commentary on this year's expansion of the European Union and NATO has focused on the communist heritage of the new members. Some cited it as the cause of their continuing difficulties. Others, including the Bush administration, pointed to their suffering under communism as the explanation of their support for George W. Bush's foreign policies.
But those observers are wrong: These Europeans are thinking much more about their futures than their pasts.
When Bush visited Bucharest in the fall of 2002, he praised the "moral clarity" of the Romanians and their fellow "new" Europeans for backing his policies in the wars on terrorism and in Iraq.
The new Europeans have many good qualities. But it is about as easy to find moral clarity in new Europe as it is to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In fact, their support of Bush's Iraq policy was not driven by the "moral clarity" but by the oldest of European diplomatic motivations: self-interest and realpolitik.
In 2002, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, and Bulgaria were seeking U.S. support to join NATO, in each case their highest foreign-policy priority. What better way to win U.S. support than to support the United States on its top priority, war in Iraq?
The other three new EU members that endorsed the war, infuriating French President Jacques Chirac, were Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. They had joined NATO in 1999, but still see their military alliance with the United States as the key to their security. A top Polish diplomat told me in March of this year that since Bush doesn't care about Europe, in order to get him to care about Poland, Poland had to go to war in Iraq. It makes sense. But it's realpolitik, not moral clarity.
The American image of new European nations as post-communist, struggling to recover from Soviet rule, is simply out of date. Even now I occasionally run into Americans who ask if Romania is still a communist dictatorship. (FYI: It's not.)
With eight of the 15 nations having joined the European Union on May 1, most of the rest likely to join within a decade, and 10 already in NATO, the transition from communism is over. These nations are overwhelmingly democratic, with real elections and freedom of speech and of the press.
They are also making Europe as a whole stronger, not weaker. By expanding to the east, the European Union is getting a burst of dynamism just when it really needs it. Its new members bring with them common values, high levels of education, and fast economic growth. While poor by our standards, they are rich in human resources: universal literacy, skilled workers, world-class scientists and engineers.
Their economies are largely privatized, with higher homeownership rates than in the United States or western Europe. Their banks are mostly owned by western Europeans. Their trade is overwhelmingly with the European Union, rather than Russia or the United States.
During the 1990s, new Europe's economy grew at a faster pace than did "old" Europe's. As a group, the gross domestic products of the new EU members have recovered from deep recessions since 1989. Poland's economy is more than
40 percent larger than it was in 1989. Slovenia has a higher standard of living than Portugal. In the 1990s, the two fastest growing European economies were Ireland and Albania. In 2002, the Balkans, including countries like Serbia and Bosnia, which suffered incredible ethnic violence within the last decade, had the fastest growth rate in Europe.
And things are likely to get better. To date, no country invited to join the European Union has been refused admittance. And every country that has joined has prospered. Thus, when EU invitations are extended to nonmembers like Serbia and Croatia, the invitations themselves will create powerful senses of security -- and momentum -- for people who, for most of the 20th century, had little of either.
When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld drew a line between old and new Europe, he was right in one way: People in the new Europe are not instinctively fearful of U.S. unilateralism or hegemony. Most of them still fear Russian unilateralism or hegemony, but not American.
The nations of central and eastern Europe are joining NATO to get U.S. -- not French or German -- protection. In fact, they are eager to use the United States as a counterbalance to French and German power within Europe.
Nonetheless, new Europeans see themselves as full members of one European family, just as Berlin is now one city. For sentimental and practical reasons, their alliances with the United States are vitally important. To them, as to other U.S. allies, America is a beacon of freedom and a guarantor of security. But they will never be part of it, nor do they particularly want to be. Europe, or more precisely the European Union, is their future. It has the democratic values and prosperity of the United States (plus universal health insurance) -- without English-only, cowboys, or capital punishment.