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BRUSSELS - A specter is starting to haunt wider Europe - those countries located between the EU and NATO on one hand and Russia on the other. That specter is "Finlandization." The return of this Cold War phrase reveals much about the changing spirit of the times and geopolitics of European security today. "Finlandization" refers to the policy imposed on Finland after World War II to pursue a foreign policy of neutrality that took the strategic interests and demands of the Soviet Union into account while preserving a democratic political system and avoiding the adoption of a communist system or becoming a satellite state, as was the case in Central and Eastern Europe.

While the term is often used in a pejorative fashion, it is historically unfair to Finland itself, a small Nordic country that fought the Red Army to a draw in order to guard its independence and then managed to preserve it for 40 years. As communism and the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the Cold War, Helsinki used this new window of opportunity to move westward: it swiftly joined the European Union and created the option to join NATO by meeting all of the Alliance's criteria in advance, an option it has heretofore chosen not to implement but could do so expeditiously if political currents changed.

But the phrase is slipping back into modern usage-as a potential future option for those countries in wider Europe. It is a shorthand way to describe a Russian policy that seeks to limit the foreign policy choices and sovereignty of countries on its borders and preclude their joining NATO or seeking a westward course in what Moscow sees as its sphere of privileged interest. Moscow has been engaged in a political offensive on this front since the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. It has recently been focusing on using soft power to tie a country like Ukraine more closely to it and to deny Kiev a Western option.

Moscow is not only seeking assurances from these countries that they will not seek to join the West. It is also seeking assurances from Western nations that they recognize this alleged sphere of special interest - and potentially give their tacit agreement to such new notions of limited sovereignty. That is one of the main issues embedded in a series of Russian policy pronouncements and the European security proposal of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. While no Western leader has yet endorsed this idea as official policy, one doesn't have to travel very far in the diplomatic corridors before running across diplomats who are asking out loud whether some new and modern version of "Finlandization" might become an acceptable policy for countries whose prospects for Western integration seem to be sinking.

What has brought this idea back from its Cold War grave? One factor is the perception that the historic opportunity for democratic enlargement that opened after 1989 is slowly closing. The United States' preoccupation with the major challenges it currently faces in southwest Asia and the wider Middle East has, rightly or wrongly, contributed to the sense that American diplomacy and power is no longer available to help extend the vision of a Europe whole and free deeper into the post-Soviet space. Enlargement fatigue, growing Russian opposition, the more complicated nature of some of the candidates - and now the Euro crisis - have all moved enlargement off the front burner of Western policy priorities. The combination of Russian assertiveness, European weakness, and American distraction has helped to spawn the view that the historical window for democratic enlargement may be coming to a close and that the West needs a new, pragmatic compromise with Russia on wider Europe.

There is a problem, however. A return to Finlandization - or some other form of limited sovereignty under a different name - would mark an historical setback. It would be a direct refutation of some of the founding principles of the Charter of Paris from November 1990 - the document that was supposed to be the cornerstone and a kind of bill of rights of a new post-Cold War European cooperative security architecture. That document - along with its successors - explicitly guarantees the right of a country to be able to choose its own domestic and foreign policy path. It would be the end of a vision that three U.S. presidents have been committed to and worked for since 1989 - the belief in a new cooperative European security structure that abolishes previous concepts of a balance of power, sphere of influence, and limited sovereignty.

Moscow today seeks to halt the further enlargement of Western institutions closer to its borders through a new version of Finlandization. But what is also clear is that the West no longer has a clear consensus or strategy for what we seek to achieve today with these countries. We affirm our commitment to the old principles but are unsure how to pursue or operationalize them in a changed political and strategic context. If we want to ensure that Finlandization remains a historical phrase and not a current one, we need a new strategy of enlargement. As the American saying goes: you can't beat something with nothing.