Journey’s End: Summarizing Central Europe

April 22, 2016 The EU doesn’t understand, Russia looms large, and the U.S. presidential race spells the beginning of the end.

|April 22, 2016

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By George Friedman

We spent our last day of our European trip in the Czech Republic and it is time to reflect on what we have seen, before we grab a flight home in the very early morning. This trip, like most of ours, was filled with meetings. Each meeting by itself is important. Taken together they blend into each other and it becomes something of a blur. Did we hear that statement about Germany in Bratislava or Prague? Who asked about how the American primaries work? Since every day of a trip like this is filled with meetings with government officials, business people and journalists, we must review our notes and memories quickly, before we forget. This is the high-level summary.
The region is caught up in two simultaneous concerns that compete with each other. The first is the EU. Far more than before, there is a sense that the European Union is failing. There is still a longing for a European Union but my sense is that the region is no longer sanguine about its recovery.
The second concern is Russia, and Central Europe feels this concern far more intensely than the rest of Europe. The problem seems more immediate than it does in the rest of the Continent. Part of it is geography. Part of it is history.
There is one more concern that is less pressing but very real: the presidential race in the United States, which Europeans see as pointing to American decline. The two problems coupled with concern about the United States frame the inherent sense of pessimism that always seems to permeate the region. Anxiety is the region’s normal condition and they are quite comfortable with it, or so it always appears to me.
The financial crisis did not hit Central Europe as it hit southern Europe. In the south, unemployment hit catastrophic proportions. Central Europe has done relatively better than the rest of Europe, in large part because Central European countries have not adopted the euro and were able to manage their currencies to some extent. They were hit by the crisis but recovered. With some significant exceptions and bumps, that has continued. In that sense, the financial crisis did not pose an existential crisis for them as it did for the south.
It was the refugee problem that hit home here. In particular, it raised red flags about Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the case that all of Europe should welcome the refugees. Germany’s reasons for making this case, and Merkel alluded to this, had to do with a lingering sense that Germans bear some element of guilt, even today, for what their their grandparents did during World War II. For Merkel, excising that sense of German corruption is important. By making the case that Germany should welcome all refugees, regardless of the number, it was her intent to demonstrate the profound transformation of Germany, drawing a line between the past and the future.
The problem was that the directives from the European Union were not simply confined to Germany. Rather, they extended, in some measure, the obligation Merkel accepted for Germany to all other countries. There was a political revolt against Merkel in Germany. There was massive resistance in Central Europe. The Poles simply slammed the door on the idea, and most of the others were extremely uneasy about the proposal, to say the least.
The argument they made was relatively simple. First, Germany was the economic powerhouse in Europe. It could afford a generosity Central Europe couldn’t. Second, they were small countries, some of them with fragile cultures still recovering from the distortions of Soviet occupation. They had a national imperative to preserve and build their national cultures, and that was incompatible with the massive inflow of people from a different culture. Finally, they were enraged at what was said about Central European countries that opposed the mass migration. They did not share in German guilt, and if Germany felt the need to redeem itself, they could understand it. They did not have such a need and felt that the edicts of the European Union mirrored German sensibilities and were indifferent to their own.
At the same time, they wanted to preserve the EU. For these countries, 1989 was the critical year when they were liberated from communist regimes. The transnational institutions such as the EU and NATO were Central Europe’s opportunity for re-entry into Europe. They did more than provide economic and security benefits – they provided the framework for adopting the principles of liberal democracy. I found this argument, which I heard most in Romania, archaic, in the sense that however imperfect, these countries are liberal democracies, and in many cases, they had always been liberal democracies. They had been forced to suspend it under the communists, but it was still there. Regardless of my view, this remains the thin thread whereby the EU hangs in this part of the world. But it is still there.
In a region that had been dominated by the Soviets, the Russians loom large, even fantastically outsized. The Russians today are not the Soviets of yesterday, and the FSB is not the KGB. But in this region, there is a sense of dread about what the Russians intend next, and a sense of Russian power and Western weakness. This led to a discussion of the U.S. and NATO. Donald Trump’s statement on NATO came up, and the Europeans I spoke with were surprised that I had not found the statement completely unreasonable.
The EU’s population is almost 200 million greater than that of the United States and its GDP is about equal. There is no reason why the collective European force in NATO should not equal the American force. If it did, the United States would not have to bear the primary burden by itself. The United States is backing Poland and Romania, while the rest of Europe remains indifferent. Therefore, I made the case that while the U.S. will support countries it has an interest in, the U.S. has given NATO a blank check. But that blank check comes with a commitment that all members spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. The Europeans have broken their agreement, and therefore the U.S. commitment to NATO can’t be taken for granted.
This always started a discussion about the U.S., usually after the meetings, in a bar. Once a few glasses were raised, the question of U.S. decline arose. They think the fact that Trump and Bernie Sanders are in the race indicates that the United States is in crisis. I thought of making my argument that the president is a weak player institutionally and rarely gets his way on anything. I decided to leave that line and go to this one: I have been traveling in Europe since 1970 and there has never been a time when the Europeans didn’t think the U.S. is going to hell in a handbasket. At any given point, it is a given that the leaders of the United States are weak or cowboys, stupid or uneducated, constantly meddling in the world or isolationist.
The deep-rooted belief in the decline of the United States is partly a salve to Europe’s pride. It lost everything and so shall the United States. But it is also the result of the fact that the Europeans know extraordinarily little about the United States. They think of the U.S. as a malfunctioning European state, rather than a well-functioning American state. For them, the state is everything. When I try to explain to them that, in the United States, the transformation of our energy supply had nothing to do with the government, but with some entrepreneurs in Texas, they hear, they understand and then return to focusing on the failure of our politicians. They remain statists in the souls, while the essence of the United States lies not in Washington, D.C. but in the vast civil society, including businesses, that dwarf the government.
This is not an argument that works well in places where all business ultimately flows into the ministries. And it is at the root of many of our disconnects. The United States is increasingly distant from Europe because we are profoundly different. Our history is not written in our capital, but in the rest of the country. One person told me that his country had excellent relations with the United States and he named all the people he knew in Washington. I answered that having seen Washington, he should also visit the United States. He didn’t get it. So he, a friend of the United States, worried that we might be paralyzed by the new president and not come to his country’s aid in a time of war.
I was going to tell him that that was a real possibility regardless of who is president, but I decided that there were realities that could not be shared. This is not new in our relationship, but must be borne in mind.