Charles Gati

The U.S. and Central and Eastern Europe in the 21st Century: Promoting Democracy, Security, or Both?

Thank you very much for this most generous introduction. Maybe I shouldn’t start talking at all because it’s going to go downhill from here, for sure.

In response, I would like to relate an old story. Several decades ago, in 1975, I wrote my first policy oriented piece in a magazine that very few of you would recognize. I’ll show it to you: This was the way Foreign Policy magazine looked then. It was printed this way so that people traveling on the Washington Metro or in New York City on the train or subway would be able to read it, but it didn’t work out. Yet the magazine is still around. In any case, my policy advocacy piece for this magazine was called “The Forgotten Region” and it dealt obviously with what we then called Eastern Europe. The State Department did not like it at all, but I got a phone call from Zbig Brzezinski, who really liked the piece. He said you are doing something important; you are keeping Eastern Europe on the agenda. This is what I want to say now to Wess and to CEPA and of course to Larry and Susan Hirsch: You are keeping Central and Eastern Europe on the agenda, and you are doing a fantastic job. I would not have imagined this much progress a few years ago when Larry was my student at SAIS (he did get an A by the way). So I should thank you now for putting Central and Eastern Europe on the political map. I’ll only add that Wess did make one mistake earlier today. I asked him how long I should speak and he said as long as you want to, as long as you are provocative. Well, Wess, you do not say this to a professor.

My talk is meant to be a provocation. And let me say in advance, if you think that everything that Hungary is doing today is just fine, that everything Romania is doing is great, if you think Albanian democracy is flourishing, or if you think that Russia poses a great military threat to Central Europe beyond the Baltics, then you will not agree with me. I hope you will listen to me, perhaps take what I have to say into account, but please keep in mind that my views are quite radical on some of these issues.

I will proceed this way: I will spend two or three minutes, not more, on the evolution of U.S. foreign policy toward Central Europe in the Cold War. I will speak for three or four minutes about the 1990s, during which I think the U.S. did a terrific job, especially with the policy of NATO enlargement. I will then turn to my main message: Should the U.S. continue to stress security issues in Central and Eastern Europe, or modify our approach? My main message, condensed in a sentence, is that of the two U.S. goals of promoting security and promoting democracy, I believe that we should give somewhat greater emphasis now to promoting democracy, because security no longer has such great importance as it did even 10 years ago and certainly 20 years ago. That’s the first provocation, and we’ll go from here.

Back in the Cold War, the first aim of the United States was to protect the security of Western Europe and in order to do that we had a policy of driving a wedge between the Soviet Union and the satellites. This policy was rather successful. We tried to encourage the spread of Titoism. In the process, we did things that were not exactly very decent, such as making friends with Ceausescu’s Romania. The second goal was the promotion of limited domestic evolution, a policy fathered by Zbigniew Brzezinski and William E. Griffith. Wisely, given the limits of American power, they advocated democratization rather than democracy, liberalization rather than liberty. As Jesse Jackson might have said, the U.S. wanted to keep hope alive under circumstances where maximalist goals such as liberation and rollback had to be uttered for the sake of satisfying domestic audiences. In any case, while the U.S. cannot be credited for what happened in 1989, we made a contribution. (Those who undermined the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe included Gorbachev, 10 million Poles in Solidarity, Pope John Paul II and others.)

In the 1990s, the circumstances were different, but the goals were similar: security and democratization. By then security meant the region’s independence from the Soviet Union, and pretty soon from Russia. The second goal was pluralism. These goals were self-evident. As always, the question was how to accomplish them. I’m reminded of a wonderful analogy that comes, as I recall, from Charles Burton Marshall, who was a professor at Johns Hopkins/SAIS as well as a member, maybe the Chairman, of the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State at one point. Foreign policy is a lot like football, he wrote. (For the sake of our European friends here, we’re talking about American football.) Marshall said that the question in a huddle for any team is not what to do, that’s obvious: score a touchdown is the name of the game, right? The question is: how do you get there?

The main instrument available to the U.S. in the 1990s was NATO enlargement. It may seem to you an obvious thing, but in 1992 only one or two people in the U.S. government dared to mention this. One unfortunately is not here, Steve Flanagan at CSIS, who really started it all and has not gotten credit for it as he should. Outside the government there were a few important supporters, such as Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Senator Richard Lugar, German Defense Minister Rühe, and of course Zbig Brzezinski. Ví¡clav Havel had a conversation with President Clinton in 1993. After that Clinton asked Tony Lake, his NSC advisor, and this is not a direct quote: “Why don’t we do what Havel would like us to do?” and Tony Lake said: “I also think it’s a good idea, but there’s nobody at the Pentagon who will support this,” which was true, “and at the State Department there are only two or three people who might.” So Clinton told Lake something to the effect of “look into this, maybe we can do this.” Then came a very important speech in September 1993 at Johns Hopkins/SAIS by Tony Lake who said: “The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement, enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.” This is exactly what the U.S. did. We mobilized the Western community. This was a historic move, not only because we provided security to the countries admitted to NATO but because the U.S. paved the way for the EU to expand. The Europeans didn’t want to do it initially, they had many objections, just like the Pentagon had to military enlargement, but in the end we shamed them into doing it. Together, those two initiatives must be regarded among the great successes of Western foreign policy in the 1990s.

Turning to this century and indeed to the present, how are we doing now and what should we be doing? I think the last 12 years have shown at least four new, even dramatic developments, and yet I dare say our policies have not fully adjusted to them. The first one, and probably the most important, has to do with Russia. It has, under Putin, revived the ambitions that under Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev were not really there that much at all. Kozyrev, in particular, was very pro-Western and pro-American. You can say that in the years that followed, Russia has become resurgent. Yet, and this is truly important, its ability to militarily subdue its Western neighbors must be regarded as all but non-existent. Aside from Chechnya, the example often cited to argue that Russia is once again aggressive as it used to be, is the war against Georgia. True, Putin’s move was aggressive, and it was also upsetting and repulsive. But please remember that the “mighty” Russian Army could not subdue Georgia militarily. They didn’t, they couldn’t. So what kind of a military threat does Russia present now to the former Soviet bloc in Central and Eastern Europe? I’ll come back to that in just a moment.

The second new development has to do with the United States. Here in this century, despite all the good things I believe we did in the 1990s, we have now put a check mark after our accomplishments in Central and Eastern Europe. We have told ourselves that the work is done. Finished. We allowed ourselves to forget that democracy is a process, it’s never done, it’s never finished, and the soil of democracy must be cultivated. We have not paid enough attention to making sure that what we accomplished in the 1990s is never reversed. I do want to note, however, Secretary Clinton’s clear but polite messages to Hungary about its backsliding were exemplary, both in the clarity of the message and the polite diplomatic language that she used. I believe that this summer U.S. diplomacy played a constructive role in helping Romania overcome or at least postpone its constitutional crisis. Still, on the whole, America’s “check mark syndrome” is very much in evidence.

The third new development has to do with democratization in Central and Eastern Europe. Freedom House and others have reported that the processes of democratization there have been arrested. We should take that very seriously. I hope you read the 2012 issue of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit, which is very critical of the poor state of democracy in Ukraine, in Hungary, and four or five others that have lost ground in recent years. In other words, the democratic achievements of the 1990s have not advanced; on the contrary, in several countries they have been reversed. There are major scholars like Jacques Rupnik who even talk now about the “transition away from democracy” in Central and Eastern Europe. I think that’s an exaggeration. I believe it does apply to a couple of countries, but certainly not to the whole region. Yet when Rupnik talks, we should listen.

The fourth feature of this century has to do with the change in Central and Eastern Europe’s attitude toward integration. Recall the poetry toward the end of the Communist era, in Poland and Hungary in particular, about Europe, about rejoining Europe. How touching it was! And it wasn’t only the sentiment of a few poets: millions of people felt that way, especially in Poland. They wanted to belong to the Western world. Now, while Poland remains on that course, there are several other countries where Euroskepiticism is widely shared. This is hard to fathom.  I can’t understand how the great beneficiaries of cohesion funds can be seriously questioning the EU’s commitment and strength. Sure, the bureaucracy in Brussels is inefficient, but tell me about one country or an institution where the bureaucracy isn’t at least cumbersome. This should not be a major consideration. An integrated Europe is highly desirable for Central and Eastern Europe, but what we see instead is disproportionate confidence in nationalist solutions.

I will not discuss tonight all four of these developments, but I’d like to go into detail about the region’s security condition and then talk about the region’s democratic deficit.

My views on the region’s security condition constitute the most controversial parts of this lecture. As I see it, only the three Baltic States need to fear a resurgent Russia today and in the foreseeable future. Russian tanks and missiles present no threat to Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic. One can say at least six of the countries in this region can breathe easily; there is no security threat at this unique moment in the history of Central and Eastern Europe. Poland, the largest and geopolitically most important country in the region, is a separate case. This is a country that must remain vigilant because the undercurrents of hostility are still turbulent. Where Poland is located, and given its history, the Poles cannot take anything for granted. That said, we should recall that even when the Soviet Union was a superpower, Moscow did not militarily intervene there in 1956, in 1970, in 1976, and even in 1981 or 1989. In fact, Gorbachev called Polish leaders on the phone in 1989 to say that they should make the best deal they can with the opposition. The Brezhnev Doctrine was over. But earlier, given Moscow’s belief system at that time, the Soviet leaders had reason to intervene but they didn’t do it. They were not trigger-happy when it came to Poland. They got their way by other means, and that is a point I would like to make. While Russia has not given up the power game and while it would like the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to respect the “Big Bear” in the East, it is not going to try to realize this wish by military means.

Keep in mind, too, that since 1989/1991 Moscow first lost its outer empire in what was then Eastern Europe; Moscow withdrew its military from the area. Then the Russians lost the inner empire that was the Soviet Union; the so-called “nationalities” sought, and achieved, independence. Today, in my judgment, Russia has every reason to worry about losing parts of the third empire, which is Russia itself. Ask yourself this: How long is Siberia going to be part of Russia? Is it possible that it will belong formally or informally to China? If you were sitting in Moscow making policy, what would you be more worried about: regaining control over Slovakia or safeguarding Russia’s present borders? My answer is that you would be deeply concerned about what China is up to in Siberia and for that matter in Central Asia. Put another way, Russia has revisionist ambitions, but ambition is one thing and ability to implement that ambition militarily in a European country is something else. So let me repeat this as it is seldom understood properly: Putin’s shameful Georgian adventure was scary and certainly repulsive, but it failed. At times I have the feeling that the U.S. is still responding to yesterday’s fears.

While I am not the cold warrior I used to be, and while I am not an expert on military logistics, I believe that the U.S. cannot – or should not – come home from Europe. If I had any say on the subject, I would say that those two brigades in Europe are not enough; there should be more, just in case. But the important thing is to keep in mind that – the three Baltic States possibly exempted – the Russian challenge to Central and Eastern Europe is not a military one. It is a political, economic and intelligence challenge. It is the penetration of some of these countries by Russian economic interests. Local newspapers keep publishing articles about bribes given to politicians and political parties in Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and elsewhere. This should be our main concern. Tanks and missiles are no longer as relevant to the security situation as they used to be. That said, I am certainly pleased that NATO, under pressure from the Obama Administration, has clarified its plans for the defense of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

One more point. I know it is a serious charge, but it is true: anti-EU nationalists like Ví¡clav Klaus in the Czech Republic, or Viktor Orbí¡n in Hungary, who has spoken out lately against the EU, are doing Russia’s work by weakening the trend toward integration. It is cheap and misleading rhetoric to compare Moscow with Brussels and to claim – as Orbí¡n has done – that Hungary will not be a colony again. Did he forget that Hungary and its neighbors had no choice but to be Moscow’s colony while they have had a choice of whether or not to join the European Union or for that matter NATO (something that Orbí¡n, when he was a liberal politician, enthusiastically supported)?

This is why I believe that the United States should put democracy promotion and integration promotion first on its agenda, not to replace our security-military concerns but to complement them. This is because the region’s political cultures have not advanced enough, and that is where the United States could do a lot more than we have in the past. We would do better if we did not believe in the check mark syndrome. The check mark syndrome is that these countries are already ours, in effect, democratic, Western, liberal democracies – therefore we need not exert ourselves. We are needed elsewhere. I believe that we should work where democracy does have a chance to fall on fertile soil and that means Central and Eastern Europe – even if in some places the democratic experiment is experiencing very serious setbacks.

For what we see now in some of Central and Eastern Europe is troublesome. Take the curious phenomenon of nostalgia for the past. Frankly speaking, I don’t understand it at all. How is it possible that after decades of experiencing tyranny, 55 percent of Romanians say — as they did in a survey last week — that they lived better under Ceausescu and they would prefer to live under his Romania rather than in a democratic or semi-democratic Romania? It boggles the mind. I can’t give you an explanation for this except that the dissonance of democracy is so offensive and corruption is so extensive and the promise of prosperity is so empty of content that people completely lose perspective of what was and what is. And of course, what could still be. What they say, and what they presumably think, is absurd to most outsiders.

Moreover, with the important exception of Poland as well as Estonia and a couple of others, the desire for integration is being replaced by what may be called nationalist egocentricity. You all know what I mean. There is a lot of skepticism now about reliance on market forces, especially on foreign investors. The free market is losing its appeal in many of these countries, not everywhere, not in Estonia for sure. Poland is doing well, but given the far right’s strength in that country the struggle for democracy is not over. There, as elsewhere in the region, scapegoatism and conspiracy theories fill the air, and one reads about the glorification of a past in the interwar years that never was. After centuries of foreign domination, Eastern Europe was indeed independent in the interwar period, but in 2012 it’s not exactly the pattern that one could uphold as a political or economic or social model. There is, in addition, a growing undercurrent of popular hatred toward the region’s most unfortunate minority, which is the Roma. This is something of a scandal and surely the United States and American NGOs could and should do much more on their behalf.

Allow me to tell you a story that has to do with discrimination. Soon after I came to this country, my new friends at Indiana University – this was 1958 – said that in the spring recess we should go to Fort Lauderdale, that’s where the girls are. I was very interested in this, so we drove through Georgia to Fort Lauderdale from Bloomington, Indiana. We stopped in Georgia at a motel where a neon light carried this message: “No [n-word], no Jews, no dogs.” This was in 1958. Fifty years later the United States has a black president. One day, though not in my lifetime, Romania will have a Roma as Prime Minister, and Lithuania will have a Jewish prime minister. It can happen if the Western world, the European Union and especially the United States exert themselves and help a very important cause indeed.

I have to end this part of my presentation by saying that conditions vary from country to country. You will probably tell me that it’s unfair to generalize, and I will agree with you. Some of what I said tonight does not apply to country X, does not apply to country Y. That’s true, but there is a trend and it is that trend that I tried to identify. The dominant trend in Central and Eastern Europe is partial retrenchment from the market and from liberal Western-style democracy. It is also true that when Westerners question or complain, they have limited leverage because NATO or EU members cannot be disciplined. That said, the latest news about the EU is that the Big Five there, including Germany and Poland, want to introduce big changes. They even flirt with the idea that voting by a majority – not by consensus! – could guide some of the EU’s decisions in the future. Occasionally, these Big Ideas that seem so unrealistic do get adopted. Just as Bill Clinton, Tony Lake, Steve Flanagan and others beat the odds and pursued, against real opposition, NATO enlargement. At first, it seemed impossible to get it done. The EU can be reformed, too, and eventually NATO’s decision-making process might be changed as well.

The first thing that is needed is clarity in our own minds. I think we have been wrong to believe that all post-Communist states, having experienced tyranny, have no choice but to adopt our ways. I don‘t think this is true. We need to realize that there are other forms of governments aside from liberal Western-style democracy which appeal to large segments of the region’s population. I’m not talking about totalitarianism, but I am afraid it is possible that semi-authoritarian and therefore only semi-democratic, managed, illiberal democracies could develop there. They are developing there as we speak. To the extent that the West can exert its influence without undue interference in the region’s internal affairs, I believe more can be achieved to assure the survival of Western-style democracies.

Second, I think we’ve been wrong to have gone easy on allies who have proved to be corrupt. A new member of NATO, Albania, is very supportive of some of our NATO missions in Afghanistan and in Kosovo, but according to apparently reliable Albanian reports it is selling positions in the Ministry of Defense for money. Yet Washington will not press the Albanians that this is not the way to do things, because in Washington’s view that country’s soldiers fight with us and therefore should not be criticized. There are many other similar examples to cite. In some cases, State Department criticism is neutralized by Pentagon indifference to undemocratic behavior or to corruption. In my view, just because a country is a member of NATO should not mean that we close our eyes to what we see as negative developments.

Third, it makes a difference who makes and who executes our policies in Central Europe. In the 1990s, a very important change was made with respect to ambassadors being assigned there. It became desirable for non-career types to seek ambassadorships in the region. A few of them have turned out to be effective. Most of them have not. They do not know exactly where they are, they don’t have the qualifications of career diplomats. The only reason why they were appointed is because they contributed to campaigns. To make my point, let me ask you a question: When you choose a dentist, do you take into account how much money he or she contributed to your favorite political party, or do you rather rely on his or her professional qualifications? Why are we setting different standards for ambassadors? The Obama Administration said during the campaign of 2008 that it would not do what its predecessor did. Famous last words. Guess what? In the Bush Administration the proportion of non-career ambassadors was about 33 percent. It is now about 33 percent under the Obama Administration. Campaign contributors seem to like the Residence in Prague. The Residence in Bucharest has a beautiful indoor swimming pool, making both desirable postings for political appointees. This is not only embarrassing; it is harmful to U.S. interests. We send people there to represent the United States who usually don’t know the country’s language, its culture, and who are not professional diplomats.

Fourth, I believe that the United States should enthusiastically welcome the overhaul of the EU’s foreign and defense policies. European Commission President Barroso deserves at least an encouraging phone call from President Obama or his successor. German-Polish cooperation on this issue is exemplary, and the U.S. should acknowledge and welcome this.

The fifth point that I’d like to make is that the best way for the U.S. directly to make a difference is through NATO. We could build on the idea that NATO is a military alliance, but it has always been a political alliance as well. Keep in mind that Franco’s Spain wanted to join NATO for years and years and years, but even during the Cold War, and despite the existential threat to the West, Spain was kept out. The same process should be in play right now – as recommended so persuasively by Professor Celeste Wallander in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2002. Today, even more so than in 2002, the very qualities that kept NATO together for more than six decades are at risk because of the pattern of behavior of some of the new members who are allowed to deflect possible criticism by sending 50 soldiers to Afghanistan or 25 to Kosovo in order to neutralize foreign criticism. This is unbecoming of NATO; its charter’s political values and expectations should be implemented.

Will any of this happen? Probably not. I say this possibly because I was born in Hungary, a country famous – or notorious – for its pessimism. But on some days, when I think about all that could be done, my acquired taste – American optimism – seems to guide me. After all, I have five American-born children, nine American-born grandchildren, and even two American-born wives (not, I stress, at the same time). This is why I have come to believe that some of my ideas outlined tonight just might be taken seriously someday. The U.S. is capable of doing big things. The declinists – here and in Europe – are wrong. A few decades ago they said Japan was the wave of the future. Now it’s China. As I see it, what we have experienced in this century and what we are experiencing now with a rather weak but sophisticated and good-willed president at the helm is but a temporary setback. This country will bounce back. The resilience that Charlie Kupchan mentioned at this conference earlier today is very much in evidence. I make this point to our guests from Europe, in particular: the biggest mistakes foreign countries make is to underestimate the United States. This is still the only military and economic superpower in the world. 39 of the top 50 universities are located in this country. Six of the top 10 classical symphony orchestras are American. By the way, one of the 10, conducted by the great Ivan Fisher, is Hungarian. As you see, I’m not talking about Hollywood, I’m not talking about pop music, I’m talking about universities and serious classical music. So don’t write off the West, don’t write off the U.S. The ability of this country, in particular, to change peacefully is exceptional. We have a lot to offer to Central and Eastern Europe, and I would like to believe that we will.

Thank you very much.

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