The current issue of the New York Review of Books contains a long article by George Soros arguing that the West should take dramatic measures to shore up the new government of Ukraine. Soros believes that the West is in effect under attack from Russia, but that Putin must be thinking about new options because of the Russian economic crisis brought about by a mix of sanctions and the fall of the price of oil. He also believes that the youth of Ukraine are enthusiastic democrats who will fight to defend and rebuild their country. I hope that he is right, but I am afraid that history is against him. Let me explain.
Since the dawn of modern history around the 16th century, the eastern half of Europe has been ruled largely by empires. These included the Ottoman Empire (which in the late 17th century still included all of Hungary and reached the gates of Vienna), the Austrian Empire, which eventually liberated Hungary, and the Russian Empire. Poland was a relatively weak aristocracy until the second half of the 18th century, when the Russian and Austrian empires and the Prussian monarchy swallowed it up. That situation did not change after 1815. The Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires all came under internal pressure from various nationalist movements during the 19th century, and by 1914 small versions of Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Rumania already existed. The First World War destroyed all these empires, and the German empire as well. It enlarged some of the existing national states, restored Poland, gave birth to new, truncated versions of Austria and Hungary, and added new nations in Finland and along the Baltic. All of them wrote constitutions and began the 1920s as democracies or constitutional monarchies.
Unfortunately, democracy took hold only around the Baltic. The new states, as I found writing the dissertation that became my first book (see at left), were poor and politically unstable, and were hard hit by the depression. By the 1930s most of them were living under some form of authoritarian rule, and had Fascist movements of varying degrees of strength. Germany incorporated several of them into an informal economic empire during the 1930s by providing a market for their agricultural products. Hitler's goals, however, went far beyond that. In 1938-9 he annexed large parts of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and in 1941 he brought Hungary and Rumania into his war on the Soviet Union. The Germans occupied the Baltic states, Belarus, and what is now Ukraine, which they planned to settle with hardy Aryan pioneers. Instead, the tide of war turned against them, and between 1944 and 1947 the whole region, less Greece, came under Communist rule. The Soviet empire lasted, of course, until 1989.
In the neo-Hegelian celebration of the early 1990s,. western intellectuals and governments assumed that nothing could stand in the way of democracy. But democracy is not a law of nature: it needs to be built, nurtured and maintained by elites that believe in it. Given that democratic political authority has steadily been getting weaker in western Europe and the United States, particular in relation to financial institutions and corporations, it is not too surprising that the eastern European nations have had trouble making it work. Belarus almost immediately became a Russian satellite. Ukraine quickly degenerated into a kelptocracy, and the orange revolution of more than a decade ago did not help much. Bulgaria is prey to Soviet influence. The Baltic states now face a potential military threat. And Hungary, Soros's own homeland, has a right-wing authoritarian government not dissimilar in spirit to Putin's Russia. There is a real clash of civilizations and political systems occurring in Eastern Europe once again, just as there was 80 years ago.
In Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War, I argued that the British and French took very little interest in Eastern Europe in the 1930s because they were far more focused upon their empires. Something similar has happened to the United States government. One of many unfortunate byproducts of our endless war in the Middle East is our neglect of other regions, and especially of Europe. In the 1960s or 1970s an economic crisis such as Europe has now experienced would have been at the top of the US foreign policy agenda,. because our government included many men who remembered the economic crisis of the 1930s and its consequences. As it is we have done almost nothing either to help the Europeans or to encourage them to pursue different policies. We seem even less interested in Eastern Europe.
Last fall I provided the Princeton University Press with one of my remaining copies of Economic Diplomacy in order that they might scan it and release an e-book. This project is very dear to my heart, because for some time now it has been the only one of my books that had gone out of print. I hope that we are not living through a kind of replay of the story it told. The future of the eastern European states, including Ukraine, lies mainly in their own hands. But the western nations can help--above all by doing the other thing the western Europeans failed to do in the 1930s, which is to provide an inspiring example of robust democracy in action.