The United States and Central Europe:  what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong, and what’s next

The anniversaries we mark this year represent great achievement, mixed with tragedy. 100 years of US relations with the newly-independent nations of Central Europe; eighty years from the start of the Second World War, in part the terrible consequence of US strategic withdrawal from Europe; thirty years since Central Europeans overthrew communism, which led to the end of “Yalta Europe”; twenty years since NATO’s first enlargement beyond the Iron Curtain, in which the United States played a leading role; and fifteen years since the European Union’s enlargement beyond that same line, led by Europeans and supported by the United States. 

Why does Central Europe matter to the United States? As the United States learned the hard way, Central Europe matters because Europe matters. And when the United States has attempted to treat Central Europe as something apart from Europe, as an object subordinate to other foreign policy interests, to be traded off, bad results follow.


Jun 6, 2019

The United States and Central Europe: Tasks for a second century together

By Daniel Fried, Jakub Wisniewski, Denise Forsthuber, and Alena Kudzko

After a century of work together, of tragedy and achievement, Central Europe and the United States have much to celebrate and defend, but also much to do.

Central Europe Democratic Transitions

Launch of the first American Grand Strategy

The first US policy toward Central Europe was embedded in US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, America’s first Grand Strategy, announced in 1918. Wilson was trying to fashion a rules-based world; not spheres of influence, but a new system built on US power and reflecting democratic values. This included “equality of trade conditions” instead of closed economic empires; invitations to post-War Germany and post-revolutionary Russia to join the new system if, but only if, they respected its rules; support for Poland and implicitly the other emerging nation states in Central and Eastern Europe; and establishment of a League of Nations, backed by US strength, to enforce the peace.

This strategy was not vapid “Wilsonian idealism,” as it is often dismissed, but reflected shrewd assumptions (and massive self-confidence) that US national interests would advance with democracy and the rule of law; that the United States would prosper best when other nations prospered as well, and thus the United States could make the world a better place and get rich in the process. Central Europe’s new nations were to be part of an undivided transatlantic community, their security implicitly underwritten by the United States.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points did not survive their first contact with reality. Before the Versailles Peace Conference, French Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau famously forecast, “God gave us the Ten Commandments and we broke them. Wilson gives us the Fourteen Points. We shall see.” France and Britain insisted on imposing a punitive settlement against Germany; they were still committed to the old order of Great Powers and their spheres of influence. Wilson wanted a new world; they wanted their cut.

But the post-World War I order failed principally because the United States would not back the peace that was flawed but workable: communist Russia was still weak; the emerging nations of Central Europe were still democracies, seeking allies and models; even after Versailles, the Germans still had pro-Western leaders. The weaknesses of the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon might have been mitigated had the United States tried to implement the peace of which it was co-author.

Instead, the United States withdrew from Europe. Wilson’s political rigidity killed US Senate ratification of the League of Nations, and the United States abandoned international leadership: it left the Germans to themselves; the French to deal with the Germans; and forgot about the Poles, Czechoslovaks, and Yugoslavs, of whose independence the United States was a sponsor. And we pretended Communist Russia wasn’t there.

Yalta: axioms of a divided Europe

Europe’s post-World War I order collapsed, with Adolf Hitler’s Germany acting as a revisionist power; in 1939, Hitler and Joseph Stalin partitioned Central and Eastern Europe; the Second World War was on; and Hitler was soon winning. The Americans, late, finally understood the folly of their withdrawal.

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s initial war aims recalled the Fourteen Points. In August 1941, he and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter, which essentially sought to apply the Fourteen Points’ principles to a prospective post-World War II settlement, including an undivided, free Europe. But the military reality of World War II—the consequence of earlier US indifference to Europe—had stacked things against this vision. The Western powers now needed Stalin to defeat Hitler.

US thinking about Central Europe’s thus started shifting, and not in a good way. Walter Lippmann, the United States’ foremost foreign policy thinker and co-author of the Fourteen Points, argued as early as 1943 that the United States would have to lead the post-war peace—so far so good— but in concert with the other great powers, including the USSR. That meant, according to Lippmann, that Soviet interests in Eastern Europe would have to be respected, which meant in practice deferring to Stalin’s ambitions.

This was the first major US expression of a “realist” option for Central Europe based on spheres-of-influence. It assumed that the Atlantic Charter applied only to Western Europe. It was the intellectual foundation of Roosevelt’s tacit acquiescence at Yalta of Soviet control of Poland and Europe’s eastern tier. This thinking emerged periodically through the Cold War, especially in US President Richard Nixon’s détente with the Soviet Union, which also tacitly accepted Soviet control of the “East Bloc” in exchange for a general relaxation of tensions and strategic stability.  

Return to the grand strategy of freedom

But the Yalta axioms of a divided Europe turned out not to be the final word. Even under détente, Soviet-style Communism did not work economically and, without economic success, it could not build political legitimacy. The Helsinki Final Act and CSCE process, and US President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy—with National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski a major influence—injected values back into the US approach to Central Europe. Encouraged, dissident movements grew and the first Solidarity movement in 1980-81 challenged the assumptions that Yalta Europe, even under détente, meant a stable Europe.

In the wake of Solidarity, US President Ronald Reagan returned US policy to the framework of the Fourteen Points and the Atlantic Charter, just as Soviet Communism was entering its terminal decline. Like Wilson, Reagan held that the United States’ interests and values ultimately were indivisible, and that security was not compatible with Soviet domination of one-third of Europe.

For his part, facing economic stagnation, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had concluded that the Soviet system needed major reform to survive, and this had a foreign policy corollary of outreach to the West. A repeat of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Martial Law in Poland in 1981 were less viable options for him. On this basis, Reagan was willing to work with Gorbachev.

Under these new conditions, starting in 1989, Central Europeans overthrew communism. US President George H. W. Bush, combining strategic vision with tactical care, backed them. The initial stages of post-communist transformation were fraught. As Lech Wałęsa noted at the time, communism was like turning an aquarium into fish soup: no special skill required. But building democracy after communism was like turning fish soup back into an aquarium: harder to manage.

But the Central Europeans succeeded. Their democratic, free-market transformation set the stage for strategic transformation. After fierce internal debate, US President Bill Clinton set aside the Yalta axioms and, with Republican support, committed the United States to consolidate freedom’s advance in Europe, working throughout with key allies in Western Europe, especially Germany. US President George W. Bush, with Democratic support, continued this course.

Extending Europe whole, free, and at peace to Central Europe followed, through parallel NATO and EU enlargements. Though it remains a work in progress, as the Georgians and Ukrainians rightly point out, Central Europe’s long and difficult road in the 20th century ended, as the democratic dissident and Solidarity activist Adam Michnik put it once, like a Hollywood movie: with an improbably happy ending.

What’s gone wrong?

But this great achievement—a united Europe including Central Europe, allied with the United States, forming the core of the world democratic community—is at risk, beset by emboldened authoritarians and doubts from within. This is true on both sides of the Atlantic and all parts of Europe.

Causes include economic stresses, unemployment, and slow growth (especially in parts of Europe); extreme and widening income disparities (especially in the United States); decline of traditional industries and rise of new ones, generating new sets of relative winners and losers; and uneven benefits of trade.

Issues of national identity are another source of internal stresses. This has been triggered by asylum seekers and would-be immigrants, in the United States from Latin America, and in Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. In the United Kingdom, concerns about immigration seem also to apply to people from Poland and others from the EU’s eastern tier. 

In the United States, years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fed dissatisfaction with the consequences of US leadership and commitments in the world.

For these and perhaps other reasons, the world’s democratic core is experiencing its worst period of internal doubt and dissention since the 1930s. Russia and China—aggressive and ambitious autocracies in their own fashion—may feel empowered to take advantage of this moment, and may even convince themselves, as did the dictators of the 1930s, that their time has come.

US leadership in question

The US version of these trends includes nativism, unilateralism, and a style of disruption, including skepticism about a rules and values-based order underwritten with US power. The US political right of Reagan, which embraced its variant of American Grand Strategy, is being challenged by a political right which draw on the language and sentiments of nativist unilateralism of the 1930s, the old “America First” movement.  

US President Donald J. Trump and some in the administration have expressed hostility to the European Union on (false) grounds that it was established to damage US economic interests and supposedly represents a “globalist” ideology harmful to American interests. President Trump has publicly and reportedly privately expressed skepticism about the value of NATO.

Happily, the US administration has not acted on these elements of its rhetoric. Under President Trump, the United States has built on the Obama administration’s leadership in strengthening defense of NATO territory against potential Russian aggression, including military deployments to Poland and the Baltics, and by encouraging Europeans to invest more in NATO. The United States has at least started to work through trade issues with the EU Commission.

Nevertheless, US political distraction and flirtation with neo-nativism and unilateralism has opportunity costs (at best) and could lead to greater dangers as Russia and China seek to challenge the rules-based, values-based world that the United States led in building.

Central Europe’s achievements under threat

Central Europe is living through its own version of the turbulence shaking Western democracies, its vulnerability greater given lower levels of prosperity, shorter traditions of democratic institutions, and the profound consequences of communist misrule. Central Europe’s hard history and ongoing transformation make a complex legacy. 

After 1945, Western European societies had two generations to work out issues of patriotism, liberalism, and nationalism, and they aren’t through yet. Forty years of communist rule deprived Central Europe of that opportunity. Under communism, many Central Europeans carried within themselves frozen images of their nations, cherished recollections of an idealized past. This memory helped them combat the Soviet narrative.

When the time came, Central Europeans overthrew communism in the name of democracy and the nation, a powerful combination. But democracy and the nation are not always the same thing. Having recovered national sovereignty after 1989, Central Europeans leapt to the European Union, where they were asked to accept its sometimes post-national culture and pooled sovereignty, and this was not what many thought they had signed up to.

Moreover, the shock of even successful transition from communism was great. The benefits of economic transformation did not spread evenly; almost all gained, but some gained much more than others. While big cities developed quickly, provinces were sometimes forgotten. Many who were part of the old communist system prospered under the new, their earlier collaboration notwithstanding, adding to a feeling of injustice.

Central Europe’s political reaction against disruptive change should not be a surprise. The United States, UK, France, and Germany are going through versions of political reaction in the face of various stresses, so why not Hungary and Poland? Given their history, it’s easy to understand why many Central Europeans are socially conservative, protective of national sovereignty, and defensive about national values, often interpreted in a conservative light.

Political choices—right, left, center, liberal, conservative—are for free nations to make. But weakening democratic institutions is another matter. Strong nations need strong, independent institutions, in and out of government. An independent judiciary and free media; a free and well-regulated, rather than politicized economy; the rule of law; and other foundations of democratic freedoms must stand independent of politics throughout the West.

Vladimir Lenin and Stalin regarded independent institutions as mere bourgeoise camouflage that must fall before the interests of the Party or the Vozhd (leader). Do we think they were right after all?

On the contrary, in the Western tradition, dating back 1000 years and advanced in the Enlightenment, sovereignty is not absolute and power not the last word. Rulers are answerable before higher values. In the US Declaration of Independence, these were defined as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Preamble to the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, Europe’s first written constitution, proclaimed that political existence, external independence, and internal freedom are linked, and more valuable than life itself.

What, then, must we do?  

The past 100 years teaches us that when Americans and Central Europeans are true to their best values, they accomplish great things together. Thirty years ago, Central European dissidents overthrew communism in the name of both national patriotism and higher, transnational values of human freedom. They asked—they demanded—that the United States act on its commitment to an undivided West rooted in these same democratic values. My colleagues and I were witnesses to and recipients of this call.  We listened and did our part, just as Central Europeans did theirs.

Having succeeded, the United States began to think that its work in Central Europe was done. We began to take for granted a united Europe that it had taken two World Wars and a Cold War to achieve. We know now that this was a mistake.

We will at this conference discuss the policy agenda for the US and Central Europe, including from the Atlantic Council/GLOBSEC report “The United States and Central Europe: Tasks for a Second Century Together.” That includes security, economics, energy, and more.

But there are overarching tasks that must guide us.

The United States needs to show up, remembering that its stake in Central Europe is part of its overall interests in a united Europe. We Americans must never again treat Central Europe as an object to be traded, nor as an instrument of wedge driving or leverage. Instead, we should remember the lesson from Wilson and Reagan: that values ultimately have power, when we mean it.

Central Europe needs to step up, remembering how the power of its commitment to democracy changed the world, and brought prosperity, security, and national freedom to Central Europe and all of Europe. Central Europe became history’s maker, not object, and can be so again.

I hope that this conference can help show us the way.  

This piece is an edited version of the Weiser Family Fellowship Inaugural Lecture, given at the Conference on the United States and Central Europe at the Atlantic Council on July 16, 2019.

Daniel Fried is a distinguished senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center. In the course of his forty-year Foreign Service career, Fried played a key role in designing and implementing American policy in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Learn more about the Conference on the United States and Central Europe here.

Related Experts: Daniel Fried

Image: US President Bill Clinton (C) poses for photographers January 12th after a working lunch with the Presidents of the Visegrad Four countries. From left to right: Slovak President Michal Kovac, Polish President Lech Walesa, President Clinton, Czech President Vaclav Havel and Hungarian President Arpad Goncz. (REUTERS/Rick Wilking)