March 03, 2014

The Return of History in Eastern Europe

Following the collapse of the Soviet empire in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, many intellectual and political leaders argued that, at least in the “security community” of Europe, “History” had reached a sort of endpoint (“History” meaning not the story of one thing after another but the broad struggle to define how human beings should live). To this school, which became increasingly dominant in U.S. policymaking on Eastern Europe over the course of the 1990s and whose heyday lasted until 2008, the point of American foreign policy (especially in Europe) was not the classical goal of making the best of an imperfect world inherently beset by competition and tension but of transcending that supposed reality – of spreading the pacific “security community” of Europe farther and farther east to achieve the final victory of the model of social or liberal democracy. The point was not to manage abiding tensions as favorably as possible but to eliminate those tensions, and especially to eliminate the threat of force and war from Eastern Europe. In other words, the point was to make power politics and strategy – traditionally understood to mean the realistic consideration of how to attain what one wants in a competitive and dangerous environment – irrelevant, passé.

Accordingly, American (and, to some extent, European) policy on Eastern Europe took on a decidedly a-strategic character. Washington’s policy on Eastern Europe seemed almost like a variant of domestic policy, focused nearly exclusively on issues of who was right and who wrong, what was legal and what not, and of what would contribute to securing the final transformation of Eastern Europe into a pacific “security community” – all to the near-exclusion of power political and strategic considerations like whether extending additional defense guarantees made military sense. (For instance, press reports indicate that NATO had not even developed detailed military plans for the defense of the Baltic states before the Georgia war awakened the Alliance to the problem.) In fact, looking at Eastern Europe from a strategic angle became almost verboten, crass, something like haggling about the bill during dinner.   

But by the early 2010s, it was becoming evident that reality wasn’t entirely complying with the demands of the model. With the rise of authoritarianism in Russia, the Georgia war, and the evident failure of the “reset” policy, the limits to and downsides of a policy that excluded strategy were becoming increasingly clear. Frozen conflicts persisted and rivalries were hardening in a number of places in Eastern Europe, and, more ominously, Russia appeared to be rearming (at least somewhat effectively) and had rejected the post-1991 order that U.S. policy had been so tightly focused on expanding. To paraphrase Liddell Hart, the project to help end History through force of will may have been magnificent, but was it smart? The answer increasingly appeared to be in the negative.

A growing unease about the viability of this approach to policy has now become a shattering wakeup call with Moscow’s Sudetenland-like quasi-seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and its lurking threat to expand its reach to all of Eastern Ukraine. Putin’s move comes like a blow to the face to the pretension that force or its threatened use has no place in post-Cold War Eastern Europe. We rightly don’t like it, but we must deal with the reality of the situation – that Putin has real power and is prepared to use it.

This means we need to reintroduce strategy into our thinking and our policy on Eastern Europe. Most of all, we need to think more rigorously about what we want in the region, what we are prepared to commit and risk to achieve that, and how we will act if others don’t comply. More broadly, we need to start thinking more about power – including military power. We need to think about how others, including Russia, can and will use it and about how we can wield it effectively and responsibly in the region.

This may seem like an obvious prescription – but the sad fact is that it isn’t. Indeed, what is disturbing to observe is the genuine, reflexive aversion to thinking in strategic terms about Eastern Europe among many of our political and intellectual leaders. Instead, there is detectable a genuine surprise, a personal shock among many in the policymaking classes. Observe, for instance, Secretary of State John Kerry’s chastising comments that Putin is stuck in the 19th century – as if that will make any difference in Moscow’s calculus.  

Of course it is perfectly appropriate and right to be angry at what Putin has done – but our statesmen and intellectual leaders should not be surprised that power politics remains part of the equation in Eastern Europe, that History is not quite over yet. It may speak well of their benevolence that they should be so taken aback, but it does not speak well of their readiness or suitability to take on the likes of Vladimir Putin. Our government and intellectual leaders might well find it uncomfortable and distasteful, but they need to get into the dirty business of power politics and of thinking and acting strategically.