Since the Bush Administration took office in 2001, the United States has lost most of its once immense influence in the Central and East European countries of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria. Each of these new democracies, having joined NATO and the European Union in the past decade, continues to maintain at least cordial relations with Washington. Many have done more than that, contributing to military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo led by the United States and NATO (or the European Union). Even so, their politicians and diplomats now tilt toward the European Union, and their citizens’ daily lives are absorbed and transformed far more by European associations than by American ones. Geography, money and shared European values have made a difference. Far more surprising is the improvement in relations between Russia and several of the countries of Mitteleuropa—notably Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and Latvia—primarily because of their need for Russian energy. Unless the Georgia crisis turns into a game changer, the region’s romance with the United States will come to an end.
The historical comparison is striking and instructive: Throughout the 1990s and as late as 2001, the Central and East European countries invariably turned to Washington for guidance. They appreciated the significance and benefits of the Atlantic Alliance and sought to join NATO. At that time, the United States, recent victor in the Cold War against the despised Soviet Union, could do no wrong. When American diplomats made a request to any of the region’s governments, they did not have to ask twice. It would have been unthinkable then for Poland to demand major U.S. concessions in exchange for allowing American defensive missiles on Polish soil.
To a large extent, membership in the European Union in 2004 (except for Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007) made Washington’s loss of influence all but inevitable. The United States could not, for example, compete with the European Union’s willingness to make Poland eligible for about 85 billion euros for regional development in the 2007–13 period. The result, as reported in a 2008 Eurobarometer survey, is that Poles, rather Euro-skeptical only a few years ago, are now among the European Union’s most enthusiastic supporters. Moreover, while huge Polish majorities during and after Communist rule believed that the United States could walk on water, a surprisingly large majority has now joined other Europeans in questioning America’s aptitude for leadership in a post-Cold War environment. In the latest available Eurobarometer poll on the subject, taken in 2005, more than twice as many Central and East Europeans said that the European Union rather than the United States played a “positive role regarding peace in the world.” Donald Rumsfeld’s pro-U.S. “New Europe” of 2003 exists no more (if it even existed then). New concern about Russia’s intentions in the wake of the Georgia crisis may bring Poland and the three Baltic states closer to the United States, but the long-term trend favoring the European Union is unlikely to change.
Declining U.S. influence is also driven by the Bush Administration’s conduct in other parts of the world, notably the Middle East. For most Mitteleuropeans, Iraq remains a misplaced priority, at the very least. They have also viewed Washington’s having consulted them after deciding to intervene as proof of the American hegemon’s vassal-like treatment of its new partners. Radek Sikorski, now Poland’s foreign minister, illustrated the point with the following story: When the United States and Poland (as well as the Czech Republic) began to discuss the placement of radar and interceptor sites for a new missile defense system in these two countries, the U.S. note to Poland included a draft of a proposed Polish reply. The draft, according to Sikorski, “contained a long list of the host countries’ obligations and few corresponding U.S. commitments. Natives here tend to think they are capable of writing their own diplomatic correspondence”, Sikorski wryly observed.1
Meanwhile, the region’s citizens travel, study and work throughout the European Union (some 1.5 million Poles work in Ireland, England and elsewhere in Europe), but the United States, after years of promises and delays, still denies visa-free access for tourists from the new EU member states (except for Slovenia). Almost all of the State Department’s educational and cultural programs for Central and Eastern Europe have been eliminated. U.S. embassies have had the unenviable task of conveying Washington’s repeated requests for military cooperation without being able to offer much in the way of compensation or incentives for such cooperation.
On the scene, these tasks are often left to non-career ambassadors who are unfamiliar with the countries to which they are assigned. At last count (in the summer of 2008), eight of the ten U.S. ambassadors in the region were non-career political appointees, only one of whom (in Slovakia) spoke the local language. The host countries initially appreciated these ambassadors’ presumed access to the White House, but when access produced few if any benefits, they reached a dispiriting conclusion: that America was now treating them the way it treats the Bahamas. They believe that Mitteleuropa is a victim of what may be called the “Checkmark Syndrome.” Official Washington has put an imperceptible checkmark after the names of these ten countries in the mistaken belief that America’s mission there has been accomplished, that these countries are irrevocably in Washington’s column, so it need not pay close attention to them.
Temptations and Illusions
The Checkmark Syndrome is not a good thing. True, U.S. foreign policy principals have only so much quality time to devote to the many problems that vie for their consideration. But inattention spells trouble sooner or later. Nowhere is this clearer than in changes to Mitteleuropa’s domestic scene, to which highly placed U.S. officials seem oblivious.
The domestic scene in the region may be fairly described as varied and volatile. Of the ten countries, Slovenia leads the pack: Its GDP per capita has surpassed that of Portugal, and it is the only country from Central and Eastern Europe to have joined the euro zone. (Slovakia is set to follow in January 2009.) Likewise, Estonia is a technological powerhouse that generates high growth rates year after year. At the other end of the spectrum, Bulgaria and Romania remain the region’s laggards. An obviously frustrated EU committee publicly complained this year that reforms both governments introduced or promised before their 2007 EU admission have been shelved or forgotten. The lesson: It’s much easier to defy Brussels after you join the club.
Between these two extremes, the more general condition in the region as a whole is political unpredictability. According to sympathetic observers, Mitteleuropa has in effect imported the Italian model of politics to the shores of the Vistula and the Danube. Governments come and go as politicians make wild promises they can’t (or shouldn’t) keep. Corruption is pervasive, leading to public cynicism and passivity. But still, somehow, the countries survive. In the Czech Republic, a bitter political standoff prevents the rise of a workable parliamentary majority; so what? In Hungary, after the collapse of the Socialist-Liberal coalition, a minority Socialist government that has been struggling to turn the economy around is unlikely to last long. In Slovakia, a coalition of three parties—of which two are Right-authoritarian and a third is Left-populist—gained power in 2006 by campaigning against the previous government’s highly successful but unpopular economic reforms. But this triple-headed government cannot get much of anything done.
Divided governments, minimal-to-non-existent majorities, populist politicians, polarized electorates, benumbed publics, bemused neighbors, fragile democratic institutions: All this nevertheless may not portend disaster. The world has a way of crawling forward through its own muck, after all. But the region’s past exposure to both left- and right-wing authoritarianisms, combined with persistent popular resistance to a second round of necessary economic reforms, suggests that in Mitteleuropa Italian-style “muddling through” may mean difficult times ahead.
The main reason U.S. policymakers, in particular, should be concerned is that almost two decades after gaining independence and freedom, the countries of Mitteleuropa are still haunted by various temptations and illusions. The yearning for a socialist “golden age” that never existed is as pervasive as the belief that Mitteleuropa has an historic opportunity to catch up in short order with the lucky part of Europe that never fell under Soviet occupation. The truth is, as the chart below shows, that the richer societies of the European Union are growing faster than those of East and Central Europe: The gap is growing.
Sometimes the two illusions combine in improbable ways: Many of those who selectively remember the Communist era as one of greater social justice and equality evidently think the state, or perhaps Brussels or Washington, should pay for their health care and university education. Large majorities who have wallowed in distorted nostalgia for “free” medical care and “free” education oppose legislation proposed by the Czech, Hungarian and Polish governments that would require modest co-payments for medical care and modest tuition payments by university students. Understandably, people have had enough of shock therapy, austerity and lopsided distributions of wealth in recent years. However, it’s hard to sympathize with the widespread reluctance to assume individual responsibility, and with the somewhat magical belief that someone else will always be there to pay the cost of ever-growing state subsidies.
At the heart of Mitteleuropa’s curious approach to economics is widespread skepticism about the free market. All but a few diehards know that pre-1989 “socialism” did not work and cannot be resurrected anyway, yet too many people still swoon before populist politicians mouthing egalitarian rhetoric. The dream of a third way between the “excesses” of capitalism and the “poorly implemented” socialist past is alive—the region’s version of wanting to have one’s goulash and eat it, too.
The main reason such phantasms still appeal is clear, however: At least some of the benefits of political, and especially economic, freedoms gained since 1989 have yet to reach enough people. Western visitors strolling around the beautiful shopping malls of Prague, Krakow or Budapest are unlikely to appreciate the large and growing disparity between rich and poor or the tensions it has sparked. While the gap between the incomes of the top and bottom 20 percent of the population is still greatest in Portugal, such formerly socialist countries as Poland, Latvia and Lithuania are not far behind. The Polish income ratio between rich and poor is more than 40 percent higher than the EU average—this in a country where the concepts of justice and egalitarianism are essentially one and the same, where the very meager benefits of the socialist welfare state are still widely seen as having been the good features of a bad system. This disparity is reflected in the fact that when asked if things are likely to get better or worse, an identical 37 percent of Mitteleuropeans come down on opposite sides—with 26 percent unable or unwilling to answer.
Together, these economic and psychological facts and perceptions will forestall a new round of economic reforms in the near future. This in turn puts politicians in a tight spot. To win elections they must appeal to those who favor greater social spending and even more state subsidies. At the same time, if they want their countries to catch up with Western Europe, they must not ignore the energetic, urban entrepreneurial middle class, which is eager for more pro-business measures.
As men do not live by bread alone, political life in Mitteleuropa does not depend only on economic conditions, real or imagined. The continued appeal of nativism that emulates the authoritarian mentality of the interwar period is also a formidable force. From Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south, most people outside the large urban centers look back fondly on the two decades before World War II, the only time in their modern history before 1991 when the countries of Mitteleuropa were independent in one geographical configuration or another. In reality, of course, the end result of that brief interlude, however emotionally gratifying while it lasted, was the defeat and destruction of the region’s defenseless entities by two totalitarian empires, first the German and then the Soviet. Incredibly, today’s nostalgic nationalists celebrate the time when their forerunners gained independence, but ignore the fact that their preoccupation with internecine quarrels left them too weak to protect their independence and resist the totalitarian juggernauts.
The region’s leadership deficit furthers the illiberal, nationalist revival. Here, too, the comparison with the 1990s is conspicuous. Then there was Václav Havel in the Czech Republic, Lech Walesa, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Bronislaw Geremek in Poland and József Antall and Árpád Göncz in Hungary. In the Baltics, such dedicated men and women as Lithuania’s Valdas Adamkus (who still holds office), Latvia’s Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Estonia’s Lennart Meri paved the way for their countries’ integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. While they did not share the same political philosophy—some were conservative and some liberal, some religious and some secular, some more nationalist and some more Euro-integrationist—they all worked to ally their countries with NATO and the European Union.
Today such leaders are in short supply. Perhaps the achievement of NATO and EU membership has made it harder to pursue high-minded or ambitious goals. Perhaps open borders and increased competition constrict vision among officials grown used to paternalistic, if also parasitic, state institutions. Many also find their post-1989 freedoms more a burden than a blessing, so it is relatively easy for populist demagogues to seduce them with pat explanations about why things are not better than they are. Blame it on Communists or the ungrateful West, point the finger at the Jews or the Roma, promise to end corruption, and you’ll rake in the votes. No wonder, then, that Robert Fico rather than Mikulas Dzurinda is Slovakia’s prime minister, or that Václav Havel has lost so much popularity and influence with his countrymen.
The worst recent case of demagoguery and the conspiratorial mind at work was the behavior of the Polish government in power from 2005 to 2007. Led by the Kaczynski twins, the government unleashed a polarizing, at times vitriolic, crusade against the country’s real or imagined domestic and foreign enemies. These enemies had to be unmasked, according to the government, because they had formed an uklad (an “arrangement”, or, in plain English, a conspiracy), in which Communists, ex-Communists, businessmen, secular liberals, remnants of the secret police, as well as assorted Russians and Germans, united to undermine Poland’s moral authority and values. How such strange bedfellows managed to work together was a mystery the government and its acolytes never explained. They did not have to: The uklad line fell on fertile soil because of the traditional place that conspiracy theories and victimhood have had in Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe.
While the Kaczynski-led coalition’s defeat at the polls last year was a welcome development, the Polish far Right continues its restless search for enemies and conspirators. A controversial book published in Warsaw this summer, for example, revived an old charge that Lech Walesa had cooperated with the SB, the Polish secret police, in the 1970s.2 This very popular 780-page book also claims that Walesa’s association with the SB in the 1970s shaped his political orientation as Polish President in the 1990s.
The unfairness and vehemence of the attack on Solidarity’s valiant founder brings to mind a poignant story told by the Polish writer Kazimierz Brandys. In A Warsaw Diary, Brandys relates that, when he circulated a petition in the 1970s against the Communist government, he asked a friend to sign it. The friend did so, saying, “I must. I have a son.” When Brandys asked another friend to sign the petition, the reply was the reverse: “I can’t. I have a son.” Written some three decades ago and first published in the West, this story is meant to encourage tolerance toward the irresolute, suggesting admirable understanding for the complexities of life that give rise to Faustian bargains, political fence-sitting, human frailty, or just plain ambivalence. As it affirms the reality of life’s agonizing choices and the inevitability of political dilemmas, the story highlights Mitteleuropean sensibility at its finest—a sensibility labeled heresy by the illiberal nationalists in the region today.
Before delving into the policy implications of Mitteleuropa’s current malaise, one more basic theme needs explanation. It is the gap between modern values embodied in local and especially EU institutions and the traditional political culture that reflects the way most people really feel and think. Accordingly, while nearly everyone recognizes the economic benefits of integration into the European Union, the political benefits of integration remain far more controversial.
In theory and often in practice, Mitteleuropa has adopted the Western ideals of human rights and political representation required for EU membership. But political integration also entails the adoption of Brussels’ post-national attitudes that often clash with what resides deepest in the hearts of most Central and Eastern Europeans. The point is not only that Brussels may not always know what is best for Bucharest or Bratislava; it’s that, having just freed themselves from Russian domination, there is little interest in taking orders from Brussels, even when the orders are sensible. Having just recouped their sovereignty, there is a region-wide reluctance to embrace Brussels’ notion of pooled sovereignty because it brings to mind Soviet rule under the old concept of limited sovereignty. The assumption widely shared west of the old inter-German border, that Europeanization will ultimately prevail over the antique sovereignties of pre-postmodern Europe, is not yet shared east of that border. While educated elites tend to favor it, most others do not, and that is why the most critical dividing line in Mitteleuropa today is no longer between ex-Communists and anti-Communists but between nationalists and integrationists. This, in turn, is why the road to integration in general and political integration in particular will continue to be full of bumps and detours. We do not yet know which is the stronger force: the shaping power of institutions and public standards, or that of culture and longstanding private beliefs.
So far, the region’s political culture lags behind the formal institutions of government. The institutions are democratic: All ten countries hold free, periodic elections, and those who lose invariably step aside. Freedoms of religion, assembly, the press and the much-appreciated freedom to travel are constitutionally guaranteed. On the other hand, tolerance toward ethnic or religious minorities has yet to take root. Treating political competitors as opponents rather than enemies is still the exception, not the rule. Understanding the legitimacy of a neighboring country’s differing interests and needs is rarer still. And the dilemma is plain: Faster and deeper integration into the European Union is the best way to align people’s attitudes with the institutions of their own governments, but the people’s attitudes as they exist preclude faster and deeper integration. If American policymakers understand nothing else about Mitteleuropa, this basic catch-22 will serve them well as the beginning of wisdom.
The Limits of U.S. Influence
Under the circumstances, there is only so much the United States can do to shape Mitteleuropa’s foreign and especially domestic policy agenda. With only modest resources available to U.S. policymakers in that part of the world, limited means, and not only desirable goals, must shape the next administration’s objectives. That said, the region remains important to the United States because of its role in Transatlantic relations and in the councils of the European Union, and because of its proximity to Russia and the Balkans. Moreover, if democracy is to replace dictatorship in other parts of the world—if Samuel Huntington’s “Third Wave” is to roll on—authoritarianism must not replace democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, the locus of the beginning of the current crest of democratic revolutions.
Given limited U.S. influence and resources, the next administration should, in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness, focus on four key tasks during its first term.
First, mount a charm offensive. Neither the new president nor his secretary of state needs to go early to Poland; the personalization of relations is usually more a sign of an official’s need for an ego trip rather than for a trip abroad to cultivate good relations or negotiate substantive agreements. The emphasis should be on wide-ranging consultations about mutually desirable objectives. A special envoy sent to the area to listen and take notes may be a good idea, especially if it helps senior U.S. officials understand better that the region’s problems do not lend themselves to easy solutions. Reform fatigue, for example, is nobody’s fault; it is the result of difficulties inherent in the transition to the free market.
Nor, by the way, is any good purpose served by incessantly reminding the region’s leaders about the danger of extensive reliance on Russian energy, or about how they should assess and respond to Russian behavior. They were not born yesterday and besides, Washington could no more fill new pipelines with non-Russian gas than it could finance their construction. The bottom line is that we must promise less rather than more, but deliver what we promise. Something so rare in this world is bound to charm.
Second, Mitteleuropa is the sort of place where investing in soft power makes sense. In the wake of Russian assertiveness, the Baltic states may well need new and concrete assurances that solemn U.S. and NATO military promises are meant to guarantee their sovereignty in good times and bad. Still, the United States must note that the overwhelming majority of talented Central and East European students attend European universities—mainly in England, France and Germany. The ERASMUS program, for instance, offers access to more than 2,200 universities throughout Europe. A fair share of these students will enter political life and become their nations’ leaders. Why would they come to America, where our complicated entry procedures are perceived as a “Not Welcome” sign? If the next administration fails to overcome congressional and other objections to visa-free travel for the citizens of new EU members, and if America’s great universities allow high tuition to deter Mitteleuropean students, then clearly the next generation in Mitteleuropa will be much less pro-American than their elders.
Making a relatively small investment in scholarships and exchanges, as well as re-opening American libraries in the region’s capitals, will not enable the United States to recover all the goodwill it has lost in the past decade, but it would help. The bottom line here can be put simply if not originally: Ask not what Mitteleuropeans can do for the United States but what America can do for Mitteleuropeans.
Third, delay missile defense installations, but cultivate Poland. As this essay goes to press, the United States has signed agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to allow defensive missiles to be stationed in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic. The agreements are subject to legislative review. Approval by the Polish legislature is all but certain, and approval by the Czech legislature is possible. How much money the U.S. Congress will appropriate for this project, however, is an open question, so there is plenty of time for the next administration to reassess the feasibility, as well as the financial and political cost, of this project.
At issue is the tempo of implementation. A reassessment must take into account not only U.S. geopolitical interests in the aftermath of the Georgia conflict but also the loss of NATO’s own standing (due to these bilateral deals effectively weakening NATO’s Article 5 guarantees of collective self-defense), as well as prevailing political circumstances in Poland and the Czech Republic. With both countries reporting persistent skepticism about the placement of missiles and radar facilities there, and with political elites deeply divided about the wisdom of making new commitments in support of an “American” project, there is every reason to delay full implementation—at least until there is proof of Iran’s technical ability to use its missiles against Europe or the United States.
The U.S.-Polish agreement was signed in a hurry this August after Russia’s attack on Georgia, accompanied by a jump in Polish polls measuring approval for such an agreement. It must not be forgotten, however, that Poland’s continued insistence on substantial U.S. aid for the Polish military in exchange for allowing American missiles to be placed on Polish soil is symptomatic of deteriorated U.S. relations with Central and Eastern Europe. That relationship, even after the Georgia crisis, is still a function of not only how the Poles and others in the region see the Russian threat but how they view America’s neglect of Mitteleuropa. In the years ahead, therefore, it is important for Washington to deepen relations with the whole region, but it is imperative to do so with Warsaw.
The missile agreement notwithstanding, Poland will not automatically identify its interests with those of the United States. Respectful U.S. diplomacy—listening and consulting rather than patronizing—could do much to alleviate Polish concerns about U.S. arrogance. Poland’s alienation from the United States is reversible.
Fourth, know what to worry about and what not to worry about. Not every Mitteleuropean problem lends itself to an American solution, and not every problem is ours to solve. There is no reason to worry, for example, about the European Union. A few years ago there was still some competition between the European Union and the United States in Mitteleuropa—for example, about which Western military fighter jet these countries would buy. The competition for influence is no more: The European Union won. We need to worry not about a U.S.-EU competition, then, but about how to genuinely cooperate to help Mitteleuropa prosper and protect itself. In other words, we need to get a better grip on how NATO and the European Union should define and accomplish their mutually reinforcing tasks. This sounds fairly simple, but it has not proven to be so.
As for Russia, it is by now a waste of time to worry about Russian energy, not because it is not a major problem (it is) but because there is simply no alternative source available to Europe. Since the beginning of this decade, Washington has rightly warned the European Union and its members about the danger of relying on Putin’s Russia for almost all of their energy needs. Yet the United States would not (and for now should not) lift sanctions on gas-rich Iran nor finance any pipeline that would bring other non-Russian gas from Central Asia to Europe. Nor has the European Union developed its own workable, properly financed energy policy. Its so-called Nabucco pipeline, which was meant to bring non-Russian gas to a distribution center in Austria, is still just a pipedream, so to speak. Unless the next administration comes up with a feasible alternative, there is no point in further alienating Germany, Italy, France, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and others by calling for vigilance toward the Russian bear.
Still, Russia’s new presence in Central and Eastern Europe should not be overlooked. Local newspaper accounts in Latvia, for example, indicate that the government in power there since late 2006 includes several politicians with close ties to Russian business interests. Similar reports fill newspaper pages in Bulgaria, Hungary, and elsewhere. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has increasingly turned to Moscow, so much so that Bratislava newspapers speak of a “re-orientation” in Slovakia’s foreign policy toward the East. Hungary has quadrupled its trade with Russia over the past three years, and its leaders make frequent high-level visits to Moscow that opposition parties find suspicious. Even deeply anti-Russian Poles have found it useful to travel to Moscow soon after winning last year’s elections. In the aftermath of the Georgia crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s first stop in a European Union capital was Warsaw. The times they are a-changin’.
While neither growing trade nor summit meetings are particularly worrisome in themselves, the totality of Russia’s new presence does raise the question of what Moscow wants and what it might do. It is clear that military action by Russia against NATO countries would meet firm resistance, but another question follows that recognition. What could the United States actually do about non-military challenges? If Russia seeks more influence through trade, could the United States compete with Russia’s often directly or indirectly state-owned companies? If Russia initiates a charm offensive (a former prime minister from the region bragged that Putin had unexpectedly escorted him to the airport at the end of one of his visits to Moscow), will American leaders undertake one of their own? In the aftermath of its military intervention in Georgia, Russia is more clearly seen by several Central and East European countries as competitive in all respects. Will the United States muster non-military resources to compete in each and every case? For Mitteleuropa to remain both free and friendly to the United States, Washington cannot assume that Moscow’s thuggish behavior alone will do our work for us.
Paying careful attention to present challenges and future surprises, harmonizing Washington’s responses with those in Brussels whenever possible, and learning to do less but do it well would all help re-establish a measure of U.S. credibility and influence in Central and Eastern Europe. In particular, acceptance of the limits of American power—as suggested by Walter Lippmann 65 years ago—would work in our favor: “The nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium”, Lippmann wrote, “its purposes within means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments.”
Sikorski, “Don’t Take Poland for Granted”, Washington Post, March 21, 2007.
Slawomir Cenckiewicz and Piotr Gontarczyk, SB a Lech Walesa: Przyczynek do biografii [The Secret Police and Lech Walesa: Addendum to a Biography] (Instytut Parmieci Narodowej, 2008).