Wanted: A Dose of Realism

15. 3. 2017

Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has enjoyed the largest peace dividend in its modern history. Unfortunately, it seems to have squandered it away, just like it squandered away twenty years of unprecedented prosperity only to end up with huge deficits and even huger debts. Today, Europe is waking up from the binge with a massive hangover, only to realize that it is weaker and more alone than it has been for decades. America is looking away, partly in fascination with the emerging powerhouses to its West (our East) and partly in fatigue about its self-indulgent, spoilt cousins in the East.

While there is still a large-scale continental consensus on the need to preserve and nourish the European project, there is little consensus on its future direction. While some say that the way forward must lie in further centralization, integration, indeed federalization, others argue that in order to extricate ourselves from the current crisis we may need to take a step back, perhaps several steps. It is a healthy debate that takes place both within and across frontiers, zones and points of compass and that needs time to play out. There is no better illustration of this than the two strikingly discrepant perspectives of the euro in this issue, one envisaging the eventual stabilization and triumph of the euro, including in countries such as the Czech Republic, by a Czech, and another, presaging its collapse and advocating a rapid retreat, by a Frenchman.

At the same time, while the European security and defense budgets declined, the geopolitical risks in its neighborhood have remained largely the same. In the logic of security thinking they have actually increased because of the relatively weaker deterrents. It is true, as one author writes in this issue, that there are few if any serious external threats to the countries of Central Europe at the moment. The problem is that by the time security risks develop into full-blown threats, it is usually too late. It is also true that internal instability, economic weakness and poor governance are often more serious threats to the security of a country than external factors. But it is not a dichotomy. Internal and external risks to the security of a country tend to reinforce each other. As Woody Allen would say, the fact that someone is paranoid does not mean that there is no one out there to get him. Security risks in our neighborhood undoubtedly exist. The conflicts in the Western Balkans have been frozen but not resolved. Iran continues with its nuclear program, bringing the West inevitably to the brink of a momentous dilemma with no good outcomes. And Russia has neither reverted to absolute dictatorship nor developed into a fullfledged democracy. It has neither turned openly hostile to the West, nor has it become genuinely friendly, all the resets notwithstanding.

The Atlantic Alliance, still the most powerful structure of collective defense near and far is in the danger of foundering. Some say it is exhausted by its out-of-area mission in Afghanistan, others that it is in search of a mission. But its fundamental mission is the same as it was more than sixty years ago—to defend and protect the Atlantic area, coincidental with the area of freedom and democracy. The problem is that this might be difficult to do with some of our defense budgets hovering around one percent of GDP, and with even the most security-minded and defense-spending European allies hard put to keep an aircraft carrier afloat and the strategic deterrent submerged.

In these days of tight budgets and austerity measures, geopolitical exceptionalism makes even less sense than usual, when it does not make much sense. From the economic point of view, Europe is still the largest market in the world and Germany is still a global economic powerhouse. But from a military-security point of view, no European country is a global power, indeed not even a continental power.

What holds for Europe, holds even more, mutatis mutandi, for our part of it. At various times since the annus mirabilis of 1989, as it enjoyed a particularly successful or fortuitous period, one or another Central European country was tempted to pronounce itself special, indispensable or answering to higher calls and held to higher standards than the others. At other times, as one or another Central European country ran into internal difficulties, suffered an economic reversal or struggled with the established norms of “European” behavior, others were sometimes too quick to criticize it, dismiss it as a failure or even see it as a promising object of a carrot-andstick strategy. In neither case did it last for long.

The plain truth is that no Central European country is large enough or strong enough to play the role of a European power, or, indeed, of a regional power. No single country can play the role of a bridge or a key link on the European North-South axis for the simple reason that no country is directly linked to both the Scandinavian North and the Balkans South. And no single country can play the role of a bridge on the European East-West axis for the simple reason that no such bridge would be sturdy enough, central enough or big enough to avoid being bypassed by one of the heavies on either side. People have tried, and failed.

What Central Europe has, on the other hand, is a unique, compact geopolitical space united by geography, history and culture. Although no country in the region may be of central importance, taken together, the region is both important and central. It was on this observation and with the vision of exploiting our similarities and synergies that József Antall, Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa founded the Visegrád Group twenty one years ago. Although the grouping achieved a lot since then, few would claim that it has fulfilled its potential. Yet the potential, political, military and economic, of a geopolitical entity of 60 million people, on par with the largest members of the EU, is there for all to see. One of the puzzles of our post-Cold War history is why we were so quick to see the huge promise of European integration, so distant at the time, and so slow to see the same promise much closer to home. It is not too late to make up for this.

Michael Žantovský

Michael Žantovský is the Honorary Board Chairman of the Aspen Institute Central Europe.

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