There are three firm pillars standing with the United States in Eastern Europe: the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania. They create a North-South cordon sanitaire against Russian encroachment. At the same time, they are immune to the reflexively anti-American posture of some West European elites.
For the past 20 years, together with many other leading pro-American politicians, businessmen, and journalists in Eastern Europe, I have been on the front lines of public debate in the constant ideological, political, and philosophical war to encourage my country to embrace Western values more fully. This is particularly important in terms of assuring Eastern European nations such as Romania upholds open democratic standards and respects the rule of law. These are areas in which we take inspiration above of all from the United States.
However, we are slowly losing this battle in the face of the growing clout of corrupt powerbrokers. Some are inside the government, while others are outside but closely aligned with it. These individuals often hide the nature of their activities behind a façade of pro-Western attitudes and pay lip-service to democratic values.
Pervasive cronyism is slowly corroding the fragile foundations of Romanian and other post-communist democracies. (See Ukraine, Moldova, and also to some degree Poland.) This corruption is taking place despite enjoying positive relations with international partners such as the United States or the European Union, and despite the strong natural attraction of the people in these countries to Western – and particularly American – values.
Thankfully, President Trump has recognized that Romania and Poland are two pivotal regional powers that cherish Judeo-Christian values and Western civilization. His Warsaw speech emphasizing precisely these civilizational issues appealed to both audiences. By the end of July, Vice President Mike Pence had also made an important visit to Estonia, Montenegro, and Georgia. The peoples of Eastern Europe are fond of individual liberty. They have personally survived the traumas of communist totalitarianism, while their ancestors had a first-hand experience of either the Ottoman rule or of the Russian autocracy. These encouraging signs give us hope that the rampant corruption of the political class in these countries may one day come to an end.
American strategic support on this non-military front – of promoting Western values – has become a critical necessity.
Unlike the early years of Eastern Europe’s partnership with NATO and the U.S., the challenge now is not to create democratic institutions but to prevent the erosion of democracy within these post-communist countries. It is an ideological war that is waged within the countries on NATO’s Eastern flank between competing visions of democracy: whether the future will be liberal or illiberal. There is a danger that one day they will begin to resemble certain Middle Eastern regimes which, while they find themselves in political and military alignment with the U.S., are inclined toward political authoritarianism and economic autarky. This challenge in Eastern Europe is driven by the purposeful propagation of new doctrines that distort the region’s established intellectual, religious, and cultural traditions.
Russia's favourite modus operandi in trying to influence these ideological wars now being waged across Eastern Europe is to use institutionalised corruption and often subtle propaganda. This propaganda is based, at times, on religious arguments. The latter approach should not mislead us: Both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity emphasize the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of human life, the theological critique of tyrannical rule, the importance of entrepreneurship and private initiative, and the construction of a vibrant civil society predicated upon a local participatory framework. But religion is being impressed into the service of propaganda.
In Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Georgia, Slovakia, and the Baltic states, a large variety of pro-American politicians, businessmen, university professors and journalists are eager to disseminate the positive aspects of the “American dream” and of America’s contribution to the progress of mankind. Of course, there are others (including some staunch Christian traditionalists) who naively accept Russian propaganda that unilaterally portrays American-led Western civilisation as a decaying, declining, and decadent world.
Keeping Eastern Europe politically stable and culturally healthy is essential to ensure a strong and enduring transatlantic alliance. The United States could benefit immensely if it reinvigorated Cold War-era programs, such as Radio Free Europe, as part of a more focused and determined effort to communicate the values of Western civilization in this part of the world. This includes promoting life, liberty, private property, the importance of the traditional family (including the joys of having children), and religious freedom.
Wars are never won by laying down one’s ideological weapons. The peoples in Ukraine and Moldova want not just military protection, but also a glimmer of hope that their lives will prosper, despite the outbreak of high-level corruption, the erosion of democracy, and media propaganda that still poisons the public square.
Apart from abandoning strategic communication, recent U.S. policy has set back the cause of liberty in Eastern Europe. For nearly a decade, the Obama administration has supported and sometimes funded the neo-Marxist rhetoric of many Soros-sponsored NGOs in the region. American leaders; respect for the Christian values of Eastern European nations could have a game-changing impact on the entire region. It could improve the pace and alter the nature of reforms, from liberalization in the realm of education, to health care, and economics more broadly.
If we read the polls documenting the pro-American sentiments in Europe, we know that millions of Eastern Europeans would welcome a “soft-power surge” supporting Western values in their part of the world for the first time since the fall of communism.
Eastern Europe stands at a crossroads. While outwardly robust in its military and political alliance with the West, and especially the United States, inwardly its post-Cold War democratic gains are receding. Long-term, this will prove fatal even to the strongest political relationship. Russia understands this perfectly, which is why it is now concentrating its subversive propaganda efforts precisely on this weak spot. American strategic support on this non-military front – of promoting Western values – has become a critical necessity.
(Photo credit: Attilavago. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0 RO.)