The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President has caused trepidation around the globe, not only because it blindsided most world leaders, but also because it may well represent the first step of the United States’ march to fundamentally reordering the international system. Campaign rhetoric may not be a perfect guide to how his foreign policy might develop, but the President-elect has left a lengthy trail of pronouncements on foreign affairs dating back to the late 1980s that give us a sense of where his instincts and priorities may lie. With the possible exceptions of East Asia, no other part of the world is as likely to be profoundly impacted by this new approach than the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).
The belt of territory from what is now Estonia to Greece and from the Czech Republic to Ukraine has traditionally formed a contested zone between Russia and Western Europe whose history is marked by repeated traumatic cycles of invasion, colonization and border changes. Events that seemed barely credible at the start of this year now threaten the pillars on which the region’s peace and security rest.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union these states were freed from vassal status and a noble effort was made to extend Western Europe’s prosperity and security to them. (There was, not least, a moral debt to be repaid; it is ironic that Britain entered the second world war in 1939 to honor a treaty obligation to Poland—and then sold the same Poland to Stalin for small change at Yalta.) The EU and NATO expanded their membership eastward on the principal that independent, sovereign states can decide their own destinies, regardless of whether a neigboring power views them as its property. The Balkan wars of the 1990s (and the rather ineffectual international intervention) were supposed to be the last ride of nationalist violence. In a co-operative, open European environment, there was no need to re-draw borders. Bosnia and Kosovo demonstrated the appalling cost of trying to do so.
There was a special ingredient that allowed the regions small and medium-sized democracies to assert their sovereignty in the face of Russian intimidation: U.S. military power locked into NATO treaty obligations. At the same time the EU played a crucial role in defusing territorial claims, particularly in cases where ethnic populations were “stranded” across a border from their mother state. Just as in the Northern Ireland peace process, common EU membership, protection of minority rights and free movement meant that only the most obsessive revanchists clung to the idea of redrawing maps.
|Mother state||Stranded homeland|
|Hungary||Transylvania (now in Romania)|
|Croatia||Hercegovina (part of Bosnia)|
The Russian attack on Ukraine in 2014 was the first hammer blow against this benign state of affairs. The annexation of Crimea, in particular, revived the idea of changing borders by force to gather in ethnic and linguistic kin. This might seem reasonable to some, including the President-elect, who has said he would “take a look” at the question of recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Indeed in August Donald Trump said, “you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” While this may or may not be factually correct (certainly the Tatars would disagree), it is also besides the point. If Russia can annex territories where there happens to be a local Russian speaking majority, then a dozen states would be vulnerable. Extending the general principle that Trump is inadvertently proposing, then most states in the region would face or mount territorial challenges. It is a peculiar feature of Central Europe that a many nations’ spiritual homeland or territory regarded as their “origin” lies outside their borders.
It is widely held that NATO’s North Atlantic Treaty is a credible deterrent; if Russia marched into Estonia, then conventional wisdom suggests NATO would have to deploy forces or be instantly rendered irrelevant. The West’s handling of Ukraine starts to cast doubt on the NATO guarantees. Of course Ukraine is neither a member of NATO nor the EU, but the Ukraine invasion set a sinister precedent by voiding the 1994 Budapest Memorandums, which bound the U.S., UK, China, France, and Russia itself to guaranteed Ukraine’s security in return for it giving up nuclear weapons. It also echoed traumas from the past. During the 1956 revolt in Hungary and the Prague Spring in 1968, the insurgents held out the hope that the U.S. Cavalry would ride over the hill to their rescue. They were disappointed, and there is a quite understandable tendency towards pessimism among the people of the region on the question of security guarantees—a belief informed by history, that, when the balloon goes up, you are on your own.
As far as the EU goes, countries of CEE faces some of the same economic challenges as those in Western Europe. But whereas in the UK or France sections of the population feel “left behind”, east of Vienna whole countries feel left behind. When the EU expanded eastwards in the 2000s, there was a promise of a convergence—that living standards would by some mechanism equalize between East and West. In some cases this has happened: by the adjusted purchasing power parity measure the Czech Republic and Estonia, for example, now have a higher GDP per capita than Portugal. Bulgaria, by contrast, has less than half the level of the UK or Germany. In addition, these figures conceal massive domestic inequalities, particularly in the Balkans.
This sense that the EU has somehow failed to deliver prosperity might simply be a question of unrealistic expectations. After all Germany, with its huge resources, still struggles to bring the East up to par after unification; despite reform, the opening of markets and transfer of structural funds, true “convergence” will probably take another generation.
Much more damaging is Angela Merkel’s invitation to migrants to come to Germany in 2015, followed by Brussels’ proposal for national resettlement quotas. This infuriated CEE states for two reasons. First, the surge of migrants into Germany and other core EU states came through the borders of Greece, Serbia, Macedonia, Hungary and Slovenia, bringing chaos and confusion. Second, when viewed from Budapest or Warsaw, one of Central Europe’s main advantages is its relative homogeneity. Put bluntly, they do not have substantial populations of other cultural backgrounds who in their view might pose a demographic or security threat, and they would like to preserve this situation. This view may cause discomfort in Brussels and other West European capitals, but it is seen as a non-negotiable question of sovereignty in Central Europe. Merkel’s unilateral policy has therefore at one stroke weakened the EU’s compact with its Eastern members. It was a fateful decision that provided Russia with an opportunity to divide—an opportunity that Vladimir Putin was only too willing to exploit.
And so, demagogic parties are on the rise in parts of Central Europe, often fuelled by covert Russian support. This presents a tremendous danger. During the Balkan wars, it was fashionable in Western capitals to say that the “ancient hatreds” that lay “in the soil” or “in the blood” cannot be overcome, and that ethnic conflict is never far away in such barbarous regions. Yet speaking to people in former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Cyprus and other countries that have experienced these conflicts, a strikingly different theme emerges. Almost without exception, people will tell you that they lived alongside other ethnic groups quite happily until conflict arrived in their town or village. At that point they had no choice but to retreat to their own community’s shelter. What happened in the case of Yugoslavia is that on the symbolic date of 28th June 1989 on the field of Gazemistan in Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic, simply and deliberately decided to make a speech that would ignite an ethnic conflict. We take for granted now that the ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania live in reasonable contentment in Romania. But what if Jobbik came to power in Budapest and decided to spark trouble? Perhaps the people would prove immune, but it might only take a few provocations to sow fear and send people into the clutches of their own communities (fanned, of course, by pervasive disinformation). With the EU in retreat and aggressively nationalist parties advancing, such a scenario is no longer fantastical.
On top of this, the strange shift in popular mood that has affected the UK and U.S. is now spreading to Central Europe too. Bulgarian voters have chosen a president who speaks of leaving the EU and NATO and Estonia has elected a party that has fraternal links to United Russia. In Hungary, Viktor Orban, the widely-maligned Fidesz populist, is all that stands between Jobbik and power.
A number of Western and Central European governments now take the view that, in response to Trump’s isolationism, they must develop stronger military forces that will be unified under an EU command. While this in and of itself could be a good thing, the danger is that it is used as a tool by Germany and others to push NATO further away and exclude the U.S. However much Europe’s forces are improved, they will never be able to stop a Russian assault. Britain always opposed EU military structures for exactly this reason. But Britain is leaving the EU.
So as the twin pillars of the EU and NATO shrivel in front of us, there is a strong likelihood that some states in the region will start to “balance” between the West and Russia. They will not return to their pre-1989 vassal status, but may instead drift into “Finlandisation”, a sort self-imposed limit on their own sovereignty intended to appease a powerful and belligerent neighbour. Should Central Europe require some further shocks to complete the process, numerous dormant territorial disputes provide opportunities. These things can easily get out of hand. Central Europe will return to its indeterminate status, and Western Europe will follow. By turns, under a bleak scenario, the U.S. will withdraw from Central and then Western Europe and Russia will dominate a weak and divided continent.
A bleaker outlook still is a major war breaking out. If there is indeed a radical reversal in Central Europe’s security arrangements and a return to raw power politics, such a scenario cannot be ruled out—it has happened twice before in the 20th Century and the conditions are emerging for it to happen again. Trumpists may harrumph that this is not America’s concern, but if history is any guide, the U.S. may find itself once again compelled to intervene late in the day, at great cost, or face an intolerably hostile strategic environment on the European continent. Trump’s homespun opinions on Crimea and NATO are no less myopic than Neville Chamberlain’s description of Germany’s plan to annex Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland in 1938, just before signing the Munich agreement: “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
The rising new caste of populist leaders and their roused supporters seem convinced that things are at an intolerably bad impasse, and that our common Western political, trade and security arrangements should be demolished. We do not live in a perfect world, but it is in many regards a better one than existed at any time before. As the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote in the Observer after Trump’s election win: “It is all too easy to take the freedoms, security and prosperity we enjoy for granted. In these uncertain times we need strong American leadership and we need Europeans to shoulder their fair share of the burden. Going it alone is not an option.” Will such warnings get a hearing?