President Trump’s Commitment to Central Europe and its Co-operation

The Atlantic Ocean is not the frontier between Europe and the Americas. It is the inland sea of a community of nations allied with one another by geography, history, and vital necessity.
Walter Lippmann: US Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (Boston, 1943).

At the height of the life or death struggle of Western civilisation Lippmann, that famous expert of Realpolitik in foreign policy, thought that post-war peace depended on amicable relations between the Anglo-American and the Russian victors, and accepted that Central Europe would likely become the victim of that settlement. “To encourage the nations of Central and Eastern Europe to organise themselves as a barrier against Russia would be to make a commitment that the United States could not carry out. […] Yet the region lies beyond the reach of American power, and therefore the implied commitment would be unbalanced and insolvent. We should be in the position of promising these nations a protection we are unable to provide […]. Does this mean that Poland, the Danubian states, and the Balkan states have no prospect of assured independence and that they are destined inexorably to become satellites of Russia or to be incorporated into the Soviet Union? The question cannot be answered categorically at this time.” The fall of Soviet Communism has annulled Lippmann’s pessimistic judgement, and only very serious blunders by the members of NATO could reverse the new European balance of power. Today Central Europe, including the Baltic States, is again part and parcel of the thousand-year-old West, the Occident — as long as that civilisation does not voluntarily surrender. Any of its members may decide to quit it by joining Eurasia or the Muslim world, but would any country, any sensible leadership commit such an egregious mistake, practically an act of suicide?

Recently travelling by train near Hajmáskér and a few days later driving on the M7 motorway near Érd I happened to see the movement of formidable armoured personnel carriers. They were participants in the NATO military exercise Saber Guardian in Transdanubia. The exercise involved more than 25,000 soldiers from over twenty allied and partner countries. Thirty years ago I saw similar-looking vehicles moving on many of the same roads near Veszprém — they belonged to the Soviet forces stationed in Hungary, “temporarily”, as all official documents stated. Before anybody cries “Hungary has only changed masters”, I hasten to add that the Soviet- led Warsaw Pact was a coalition of the unwilling, whereas in the 1997 plebiscite Hungary endorsed membership in NATO with an impressive 85 per cent majority. In addition to guaranteeing peace in Europe NATO is the best school for promoting partnership and solidarity among historically quarrelsome neighbours. While some elements of Hungary’s present-day policy towards the EU have led to questions and criticism in the world media, as well as the raising of eyebrows in a few capitals, no one can find any official pronouncement which questions Hungary’s commitment to the Atlantic Alliance.

Following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, there were fears — based on both his pre- and post-elections statements — that the new administration may really consider NATO outdated and Article 5, the pledge to defend any of the allies against aggression, may no longer be valid. Following the President’s recent foreign tours observers have had to modify the picture of Trump’s relationship to Europe. Twenty-five years ago Germany appeared to gradually be taking over the role of the United Kingdom as the pivot of America’s alliance policy. Today, after Brexit, the rebirth of the Anglo-American special relationship remains in doubt, and the US is heading for a commercial conflict with Western Europe, especially with Germany. However, that is not the end of NATO, fortunately. While the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has been (at least for the time being) dropped, the US is rediscovering Central Europe as a useful partner. Such a close relationship (to be a key ally) was the desire of the Visegrád countries in the 1990s, and during the Iraq War it was briefly realised, but under the Obama administration the whole of Europe lost the attention of America. And lo, on 6 July 2017 we heard the American President in Warsaw pledging America’s commitment to the security of Poland and its neighbours. He gave public support to the Three Seas Initiative, too, the closer association and cooperation of all the countries between the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Adriatic. “America is eager to expand our partnership with you. We welcome stronger ties of trade and commerce as you grow your economies. And we are committed to securing your access to alternate sources of energy, so Poland and its neighbours are never again held hostage to a single supplier of energy.”

While such an assurance is most welcome for all those peoples who remember foreign domination, oppression and economic exploitation, which was the fate of Central Europe for half a century, I was most pleasantly surprised by the President’s evocation of Polish heroism in history. “Poland is the geographic heart of Europe, but more importantly, in the Polish people, we see the soul of Europe. Your nation is great because your spint is great and your spirit is strong. For two centuries, Poland suffered constant and brutal attacks. But while Poland could be invaded and occupied, and its borders even erased from the map, it could never be erased from history or from your hearts. In those dark days, you have lost your land but you never lost your pride. […] Despite every effort to transform you, oppress you, or destroy you, you endured and overcame. You are the proud nation of Copernicus — think of that — Chopin, Saint John Paul II. Poland is a land of great heroes. [.] The triumph of the Polish spirit over centuries of hardship gives us all hope for a future in which good conquers evil, and peace achieves victory over war. For Americans, Poland has been a symbol of hope since the beginning of our nation. Polish heroes and American patriots fought side by side in our War of Independence and in many wars that followed. Our soldiers still serve together today in Afghanistan and Iraq, combating the enemies of all civilisation. […] Our two countries share a special bond forged by unique histories and national characters. It is a fellowship that exists only among people who have fought and bled and died for freedom. The signs of this friendship stand in our nation’s capital. Just steps from the White House, we’ve raised statues of men with names like Pulaski and Kosciuszko. The same is true in Warsaw, where street signs carry the name of George Washington, and a monument stands to one of the world’s greatest heroes, Ronald Reagan. And so I am here today not just to visit an old ally, but to hold it up as an example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilisation. The story of Poland is the story of a people who have never lost hope, who have never been broken, and who have never, ever forgotten who they are.” Little wonder that the audience often interrupted the speech with applause and shouted the name of the President.

Similar sentences could be told about Hungary, too. Indeed they were uttered on 22 June 2006 by President George W Bush in Budapest. “Hungary sits at the heart of Europe. Hungary represents the triumph of liberty over tyranny. And America is proud to call Hungary a friend. […] Hungarian patriots tore down the statue of Joseph Stalin, and defied an empire to proclaim their liberty. [.] In 1989, a new generation of Hungarians returned to the streets to demand their liberty, and boldly helped others secure their freedom, as well. By giving shelter to those fleeing tyranny and opening your border to the West, you helped bring down the Iron Curtain, and gave the hope of freedom to millions in Central and Eastern Europe. Because you had the courage to lead, Hungary became the first Communist nation in Europe to make the transition to democracy. America honours your courage. We have learned from your example. And we resolve that when people stand up for their freedom, America will stand with them. […] America admires your perseverance. We welcome your progress. And America values our alliance with the free people of Hungary.”

Having gone even further in praise of Poland’s heroism in the Second World War and in overthrowing Communism, President Trump gave the long-awaited assurance: “One hundred years after the entry of American forces into World War I, the transatlantic bond between the United States and Europe is as strong as ever and maybe, in many ways, even stronger.” The President returned to the 1990s in seeing the new task of NATO in combating the new threats, especially terrorism. “We are confronted by another oppressive ideology — one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe. America and Europe have suffered one terror attack after another. We are going to get it to stop. [.] We must stand united against these shared enemies to strip them of their territory and their funding, and their networks, and any form of ideological support that they may have.” The resolve to keep the borders “closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind” was qualified: “we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people”, but “We cannot accept those who reject our values and who use hatred to justify violence against the innocent.” [That should be obvious on both sides of the Atlantic, but apparently it is not.] […] “To meet new forms of aggression, including propaganda, financial crimes, and cyberwarfare, we must adapt our alliance to compete effectively in new ways and on all new battlefields.”

Trump was — at last — unequivocal on Russia: “We urge Russia to cease its destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes — including Syria and Iran — and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defence of civilisation itself.” This theme, rejecting the notion of “the decline of the West” and expressing optimism in the future of the traditional values was probably the most important message of the Warsaw speech. “We are the fastest and the greatest community. There is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations. We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers. We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honour God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the centre of our lives. [.] Our citizens did not win freedom together, did not survive horrors together, did not face down evil together, only to lose our freedom to a lack of pride and confidence in our values.” That is indeed a crucial issue. Losing their will and determination to stand up for their own achievements — and bearing sacrifices for them — has probably become the most serious danger facing Western societies. Trump was right in asking: “Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

Accepting that there is no free lunch one cannot object to Trump’s demand that NATO members must share the burdens. ‘Americans know that a strong alliance of free, sovereign and independent nations is the best defence for our freedoms and for our interests. That is why my administration has demanded that all members of NATO finally meet their full and fair financial obligation. [.] we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defence commitment. Words are easy, but actions are what matter. And for its own protection — and you know this, everybody knows this, everybody has to know this — Europe must do more. Europe must demonstrate that it believes in its future by investing its money to secure that future.” The President applauded Poland’s decision to buy the Patriot air and missile defence system from the US.

The end of his speech was bound to win the hearts of most Poles. Trump recalled some of the details of the Warsaw Uprising in the summer of 1944 against the Nazis, which was suppressed with unparalleled cynicism and brutality practically jointly by Hitler and Stalin. “Those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defence — and that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilisation, is worth defending with your life.”

The President — whether one likes him or not, still the leading politician of the free world — concluded with a message for the West. “Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield — it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls. Today, the ties that unite our civilisation are no less vital, and demand no less defence, than that bare shred of land [Aleja Jerozolimska in the centre of Warsaw, crucial in the Uprising, referred in the speech] on which the hope of Poland once totally rested. Our freedom, our civilisation, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture and memory. And today as ever, Poland is in our heart, and its people are in that fight. Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilisation will triumph.”

It is not my custom to quote so extensively from a politician’s speech. But this speech could have been written by any patriotic Central European historian for one of his/her political leaders. (That might have been the case.) It expresses the feelings and thinking of most conservative, centre-right and patriotic people in Central Europe. It was a battle-cry for defending the traditional beliefs of the West, under siege by left-leaning, “politically correct” people over the world. In Western Europe most of the public (not only on the Left) would find it strange for a politician to rely so much on history and to show such a strong belief in the West, in its civilisation. We know that most political leaders do not write their own speeches. But they are — they should be — committed to their own sentences, especially when expressed in front of such a large crowd, amid the attention of the international media. In such a case the ideas articulated inevitably become part of the speaker’s inner self, his or her system of beliefs. If a leader diverts from his/her own statements then he/she should pay the price of losing the political support that lifted him/her to the high position he/she reached. At least that should be the rule in every democracy.

The President’s critics did not find much to object to in the speech itself; they rather questioned its sincerity, and recalled his earlier words uttered both before and after his election. David Frum in The Atlantic pointed out that “Trump travelled to Warsaw to praise and reward a Polish government that all America’s other leading allies in Europe have been reproving for its suppression of free media and politicisation of its legal system. Trump’s speech in praise of the unity of the West predictably and perversely ended up being an attack on the unity of the West.” Insincere or not, what matters is that the President of the United States spoke on world politics much in the way so many of us in Central Europe had long been expecting from a Western leader.

The speech delivered in front of the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising before a large Polish crowd was not the only important pronouncement by President Trump. He also spoke to twelve leaders, mainly presidents, from the Three Seas Initiative countries. That association was launched last year in the pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik, a magnificent Croatian town in Dalmatia, the one- time Ragusa, which once belonged to Venice and was protected by the kings of Hungary. The idea to gather all the countries between the Germans and the Russians against potential aggressors goes back at least to the mid-19th century, when Poles, Hungarians and many other smaller peoples languished under the oppressive Russian, Habsburg or Ottoman Empire. Lajos Kossuth, the leader of Hungary’s 1848—49 War for Independence, admired by so many of his English, French and American contemporaries, called for a “Danubian Confederation”. It was revived in a larger version by the President of inter-war Poland, Marshall Piisudski, when the precarious independence of Central and Eastern Europe was threatened by both Nazism and Soviet Communism. If history proves anything then it is the wisdom of that scheme, but it shows also the short-sightedness of so many political leaders and their public, as it was not realised. During and immediately after the Second World War the unification of Europe, and as part of it, the federal idea, gained ground. Then Hungary hoped to solve its territorial disputes by confederating with its neighbours. While in Western Europe reconciliation between the nations did take place, leading to NATO and the Common Market, in the areas under Soviet occupation the desire for the same was thwarted by Stalin. With the collapse of the Evil Empire the obstacle disappeared. NATO and a little later and somewhat reluctantly the European Union, too, rose to the opportunity and opened their ranks.

Today NATO is a guarantee against military aggression, but unconventional threats abound. The most obvious one is terrorism, and the most serious one is blackmailing with energy, stopping the supply of gas and oil, on which Europeans depend. There is, however, a less obvious threat, largely unknown or not noticed outside Central Europe. It is disappointment in the European Union and in the United States, in the West, in other words in the market economy and liberal democracy. Communism was a system not only oppressive but also economically inefficient, resulting in poverty. Prosperity was the most successful weapon of the West in the Cold War. The peoples who escaped from Soviet domination expected to approach Western standards of living at least in one or two decades. For various reasons few if any of the countries have managed to reach that goal. The financial crisis of 2008 and a number of unsuccessful political actions also undermined confidence in the West, in its leaders, even in capitalism. It was not too difficult to mislead quite a few people by the opponents of the Western political and economic system into thinking that the West was in inevitable decline and the future belonged to the East. “Ex Oriente lux”, the light comes from the East. It is mainly the European Union, its continued success, which should refute the pessimists and the ill-wishers. When “euroscepticism” is on the increase, when the euro is shaken, when social problems are abounding, and last but not least when mass migration combined with Islamic fundamentalism presents such a formidable challenge and leads to serious divisions within Europe, then “the new Europe”, the formerly Communist-dominated countries can become easy prey to dangerous ideas and dangerous politicians. The antidote is economic progress and the military strength of the Atlantic Alliance. That is why it is so important to speed up the economic progress of Central Europe. Strong and good leadership, closer cooperation, better lines of communication, and the uninterrupted supply of cheap energy are essential in overcoming the discontent of the peoples in Central and Southeastern Europe. That is where the Three Seas Initiative, the cooperation of the Visegrád Four, the Baltic Three plus Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Slovenia, covering one third of the European Union, can come in.

“The Three Seas Initiative will transform and rebuild the entire region and ensure that your infrastructure, like your commitment to freedom and rule of law, binds you to all of Europe and, indeed, to the West”, encouraged President Trump the representatives of the twelve countries involved. He offered them “a new future for open, fair and affordable energy markets that bring greater security and prosperity to all of our citizens”. After some boasting over the economic performance and growing military strength of the United States Trump welcomed the new Polish liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal and the one under construction on the Croatian island of Krk. “These projects and many others are crucial to ensuring that your nations continue to diversify your energy sources, suppliers, and routes. I also applaud Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria for pursuing a pipeline from the Black Sea.” Was that a reference to a revived Russian South Stream project or to transporting the newly discovered offshore oil-fields of the Black Sea? Then came Trump the spokesman of American industrial interests. ‘America will be a faithful and dependable partner in the export and sale of our high-quality and low-cost energy resources and technologies. We make the best technology and we make the best, best technology for fighter jets and ships and equipment, military weapons. There is nobody even close, and that is acknowledged. All over the world they talk about the greatness of our military equipment. Nobody comes close. So when you buy and as you buy military equipment, hopefully you will be thinking only of the United States.” Purchasing American products would lead not only to prosperity but also to ensure “that your nations remain sovereign, secure and free from foreign coercion”.

It has been long overdue to improve infrastructure and to develop more and better connections in energy, transportation and digital communications along a north-south axis in Central Europe. But resources for that can come only from the European Union, that Trump did not mention. Many in the EU look askance at the Three Seas Initiative seeing it as a fantasy at best and a wedge aiming at splitting the EU at worst. I strongly disagree with the sceptics. Central Europe very much needs more ties, more integration, more modernisation and more cohesion among its countries. The EU’s verbal support has to be converted into more large projects, mainly in infrastructure. Most Central Europeans still have confidence in European integration, also in the common currency — few can see a better alternative. But reaffirming the special relationship of the early 2000s under President G. W Bush with “the new Europe” might, could help restoring the intimacy that used to exist between the US and Western Europe. The visibly strong interest of President Macron in both the Visegrád and the Slavkov (Austria, Czechia and Slovakia) cooperation would help that. Assuming that Chancellor Merkel is re-elected in September the US will have to accommodate to working with the strongest economy of Europe. The concerns of Poland and the Baltic nations about Russian intentions are now shared by President Trump. Unless Western Europe abandons its support of the Minsk Accord over Ukraine and drops the sanctions against Russia, there cannot be a lasting difference over or strong objections to the harder line America has taken towards its old adversary.

With the official and unusually long visit of Israel’s Prime Minister to Budapest, a new element has been introduced into the international scene, no doubt not unrelated to the Trump visit in Warsaw. Responding to the invitation of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Benjamin Netanyahu also met here the leaders of the Visegrád Four countries, upgrading in this way the actually working part of the Three Seas project. It is hard not to sense behind these meetings another example of the present good Polish—Hungarian cooperation in European matters. Netanyahu may judge that by cultivating the Central Europeans he has a good chance to compel Western Europe to return to a more balanced, more impartial position on the Arab—Israeli conflict and the issue of Palestine. Israel would be the last to overlook that in Central Europe there is a strong albeit painful Jewish tradition, and that anti- Semitism still exists there. But unlike most of the Western media and public, the Israeli Prime Minister is aware that in Central Europe anti-Semitic incidents (attacks on Jews and their institutions) are rarer and happen on a much smaller scale than in Western Europe. In the presence of the Israeli Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán has renewed his pledge that there is zero tolerance on anti-Semitism in Hungary.

Although practically all Central European states maintain diplomatic relations with Palestine, they do not share the fashionable enthusiasm one so often sees in Western “progressive” circles towards the various Palestinian factions. If the West is to be consolidated to withstand Islamic fundamentalism Israel cannot be left out. That might be a political burden in doing business with certain Muslim states, but it is also an asset with the Jewish state’s powerful army and its technological prowess.

President Trump has much better, excellent relations with Prime Minister Netanyahu than President Obama had, but he is careful also to cultivate ties with Saudi Arabia and other traditional Arab states, for whom Iran and not Israel is seen as the great danger. Most Western European countries, however, are not so much worried by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and welcomed the agreement on freezing the latter’s nuclear program. The US, on the other hand, is now doubtful about the value of that agreement, to the obvious delight of Israel’s present government. Both Trump and Netanyahu have discovered Central Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, who are rebelling against Brussels’ alleged overbearing and lecturing behaviour. Both are ready to build up “the New Europe”. That is most welcome for most of the Central Europeans, and it falls in with the Three Seas project. But building up against whom? If it is Russia, it appeals to the East Central European countries, particularly the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. Is it against the core countries of the EU? Poland and Hungary may go along with that but only to some extent — and no one else. Even Israel does not want a break with the EU; on the contrary, it sees itself as partly a European state.

For me there appears to be only one solution to these somewhat contradictory schemes: the European Union responding to some of the concerns of the new members, but all the remaining 27 States to find a common platform on Russia, Turkey, migration, the Middle East and the rest. It is easy to quarrel, but the art of real statesmanship is to find the common ground. When the Atlantic commitment of Central Europe is acknowledged and encouraged by the United States, and de Gaulle’s successor watches the 14 July military parade with the American President in apparent intimate friendship, while Russia carries out its largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War, the future of NATO — and with that the security of the whole of Europe — seems assured.

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