Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski: Keynote at Globsec 2013
Apr 18, 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen,
What can one say after an introduction like this. In fact, it is hard to simply say thank you because it would be inadequate and impolite to question the overall adjectives and judgments. So one can only express ones appreciation for having friends like you. Mr. Ambassador Martin Bútora and your wife, Ambassador Rastislav Kácer, people who have been in the front lines, who have been struggling to make this country and this region more important, more productive, more self-fulfilling. And it is engaging in this kind of activity that is a source of enormous satisfaction.
I feel very much at home here in Bratislava. It is not only a beautiful European city but it is also a testimony to what this region and these people can be, what they wish to be. It is a source of satisfaction to me that in some small degree, I was a participant in the events that have so transformed and are transforming this region. I remember being here some twenty years ago, I remember walking down the main streets just a few blocks from here and sitting down in a café with Václav Havel and having a beer. And I particularly remember this kind of exuberant feeling that something terribly important is happening. And that something terribly satisfying has just happened.
It has been nice to see here some of the people who were then involved in that and it is also nice to see here some people who were not central at the time, but who have become leaders in the subsequent decades and are shaping a new Europe, a new Central Europe – this being associated with a sense of fulfillment that makes life meaningful.
Today, I would like to take advantage of this opportunity to look together with you at some questions which may be pertinent. First, and perhaps more easily, what can we learn from these twenty-five years that have transpired from those exuberant exhilarating days? To be more specific, and perhaps a little bit troubling, how well or how badly have we done in the course of these twenty-five years? What is Europe’s current challenge in that context? What can the Central Europeans contribute and beyond that what is America’s role and what it ought to be? Indeed, at this stage of history I think it is noteworthy to ask, what is the central mission of the West in the world today?
In response to the successful conclusion of the Cold War, I think it is fair to say that initially America did well. NATO was expanded - even despite opposition within the US government itself. I remember those days and those debates and I simply ask myself what would be the situation today if Central Europe had remained excluded from NATO? As some have argued that it should be excluded for the sake of good relations with Russia. What would it be like today with Putin’s Russia flexing its weakened muscles? As we all know, fences make for far better neighbors. A new world order seemed to be in the making, with America - the world’s only truly global superpower - poised then to shape a more stable and more fair world order.
That was almost twenty-five years ago. But unfortunately America soon let itself be drawn into the Middle East’s vortex of conflicts and animosities. The falsely justified war in Iraq entailed enormous costs for America both tangible and moral. Three trillion wasted dollars, which deepened our financial crisis. Thirty-five thousand American casualties, killed and wounded - US moral political leadership delegitimized in many parts of the world, its international standing and influence considerably down. Just think of the recent vote in the UN regarding Palestinian membership in the UN. The United States organized a worldwide diplomatic effort to prevent that from happening. And out of 190 countries it gained seven supporters. The war in Iraq, moreover, prolonged the war in Afghanistan. There was a disappointing lack of commitment during that time to peace between Israel and Palestine. And today, America may be facing the possibility of a new regional war, because of the crisis in Syria or possibly next year - Iran. And that war would be another regional calamity for it would not be contained just to Iran, and America would be entirely alone in it.
Initially, Europe also did well twenty-five years ago - its mood being one of hope, optimism, and exultation. “Whole and free” became the enduring reality with NATO expanded and the formation of the European Union - a historic landmark in the long fate of this continent. Moreover, America and Europe responded together to the crisis in the Balkans. And Europe stood by America in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, before long major flaws in the European architecture surfaced. They were compounded by the financial crisis that exploded on both sides of the Atlantic. Europe’s main problem is that today’s European Union is a Europe more of banks than of people, more an economic convenience than an emotional commitment of the European peoples. With the UK, for example, reserving special rights for its global gambling equivalent of Las Vegas and with many Europeans inspired less by a shared European sentiment but enticed more by prospective subsidies.
A largely financial union of nation states lacks the popular commitment of genuinely European patriotism. Europe’s lack of global ambitions makes for excessive reliance on America and makes the American public more skeptical of Europe. Once the center of global innovation and economic dynamism, today Europe lags behind not only America, but also Asia. The absence of a wider vision of Europe’s global role - not to mention the widely shared European view that assuring global security is largely an American obligation - intensifies narrow aspirations for privileged status for some states, and complacent expectations by self-indulging states of generous bailouts from the more disciplined members of the Union.
And what can we say, quite frankly, about Central Europe in that wider context? Central Europe became a region of independent states largely after 1919. The child of Wilsonian democratic optimism - central Europe’s first twenty years until 1939 were unfortunately marked as much by democratic failure as by democratic success. Including, in some cases, even presidential and royal assassinations, coups, flirtations with fascism and anti-Semitism, intensifying nationalisms and border disputes. Central Europe then fell victim to World War II and Soviet domination. It regained its identity and freedom only after fifty long years.
But, after 1990, at first, Central Europe also did well. Democracy, membership in NATO and the EU, defined its new more hopeful era. The peaceful transformation of Czechoslovakia into two states was a model of democratic maturity. And growing regional cooperation became evident. We talked today about Visegrad and the important and constructive role that it is increasingly playing within the European constellation. The Baltic region has a sense of common interest and security. Nordefco in Scandinavia is a source of growing security cooperation that is of importance to Central Europe. All of that increases the region’s European weight. But of course one also has to note troubling signs in some cases of lack of respect for the European Union’s commitment to constitutionalism, some signals of intolerant nationalism, an inclination to view the European Union more as a piggy-bank than as a source of shared supranational identity and common values.
Central Europe also faces special security vulnerability. Its neighbor to the East is a large post-imperial state profoundly confused by its own illusions and nostalgias and with its leadership still yearning for superpower status and subordination of its former provinces, especially Ukraine and Belarus - and possibly Georgia. Actually Russia’s current threat to Central Europe is not primarily military. Rather it is subversion of some Central European elites by billionaires from the former “big brother” and internal contamination by the pervasive corruption emanating from the immediate East. This, in turn, facilitates intensified political intimidation. Indeed, for example, Georgia’s subordination would also give Moscow effective political control over the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and thus vastly increase Europe’s dependence. Cumulatively, that would pose a real threat to Central Europe’s regained independence. America thus needs to be visibly present politically and militarily in this important region.
But more than that is needed from all of us, if we are to be fair in our historical judgments. It is our shared responsibility - of all Europeans and Americans - to define collectively the challenging relevance of the West’s democratic tradition to the dilemmas of the increasingly turbulent 21st century world. It is nothing less than to formulate a shared strategic vision of the future, which over time can generate deeper and more organic American-European ties.
The shaping of a more vital West is a task in which Europe has to be directly engaged. Europe needs leaders who can personalize and dramatize the historic mission of a more united Europe in closer intimacy with America. In Western Europe today there is a dearth of historical imagination and of global ambition. There is no Churchill, nor De Gaulle, nor Adenauer. Current political discourse is dominated by narrower perspectives and by the more immediate preoccupations of their constituents. But in the process the inspirational vision that is expected of democratic leaders is absent.
That troubling reality poses specific challenges for Central Europe. I see leaders of Central Europe in this room who are eminently qualified to be leaders of Europe as a whole. And who are sensitive to these challenges. Central Europe needs to assert its democratic entitlement to a greater share of the top decision-making positions in the European Union - driven by the conviction that it will be truly geostrategically secure only when Europe becomes a genuine political entity; when Europe’s political institutions match its economic financial ones; when America and Europe are more organically linked across the Atlantic Ocean both by NATO and by a free trade agreement; when Europe acts on its own interest to embrace Turkey; and when eventually Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia recognize what their real long-term historical interests actually are.
Let me put the forgoing in a larger global context. Alas, today to increasingly many - especially in Europe - Oswald Spengler’s book “The Decline of the West”, seems to be a farsighted anticipation of historical trends. During these last twenty-five years, the world has changed dramatically. Though still the sole superpower, the United States is increasingly challenged by a rising China. Europe is being surpassed economically by Asia. Russia is wobbly drifting between its illusions and nostalgia.
The international system as a whole is being challenged by geopolitically transforming dynamics. Larger units of transnational cooperation are becoming a security imperative. Cooperation between them is essential to avoid global turmoil within the now politically awakened, restless and fragmented humanity. Unlike the 20th century when a single ambitious power could still seek to become a global hegemon, in today’s politically activated, interconnected, and increasingly crowded world coercive hegemony by single power is no longer attainable. The new reality of globally politically awakened populism, and of the existence of nuclear weapons have made a central war into a suicidal luxury that even the most powerful state can no longer afford. In the 21st century the central threat is not a tyrannical hegemony but the tyranny of global chaos.
In that setting, there is the real risk - not yet dominant, not yet fully visible, but increasingly looming on the horizon - that the 21st century could turn out to be even more turbulent than the 20th. The staggering indebtedness of the Western economy is threatening the appeal of Western democracy. Though China is rising dramatically, we also cannot be indifferent to the vulnerability of the new Asia to a variety of geopolitical, ethnic, national and territorial conflicts. They potentially pose the risk that Asia in the 21st century could even replicate internally the sad experience of Europe during the 20th century. At the same time, the combination of chaos, religious fanaticism and the growing danger that the technological capacity for waging, what I call, anonymous wars without warning - and even without knowledge as to who is actually waging these wars (I speak in particular of cyber warfare) - poses potentially enormous risks for the essence of the West itself, namely its democracy.
Fortunately, however, countervailing dynamics are also beginning to surface. Today in America serious consideration is being given to a North Atlantic free trade area embracing North America and Europe. There is enormous promise in that concept even though one must not minimize the complex obstacles on the way to its achievement. It will take a number of years, perhaps a decade or so, to bring it into reality, but a shared commitment to that goal will also have as of itself important political effects. Eventually, it can create additional transatlantic bonds that will dramatically alter the geopolitical realities of the world as a whole. It can shape a new balance between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceanic regions, while at the same time generating in the West new vitality, more security and greater cohesion.
Such a more vital West will then be a source of increasing attraction also to Europe’s East. By then, Russia most likely will already be painfully aware that Putin’s concept of a Eurasian Union is altogether unrealistic. Squeezed between a dramatically developing China in the East and facing a vital Atlantic community in the West, the choice for Moscow should then be obvious. It should seek to join an enterprise to which in terms of cultural antecedents Russia is eminently qualified to be a member. But that can only happen if Russia itself in the meantime undertakes democratization in keeping with the gradual emergence of its new middle class, a class which is becoming much more internationalist and cosmopolitan in its outlook and also more European in its tastes and aspirations. I am a cautious optimist in that respect.
So to conclude, the historical confrontation between rising dangers and longer-range opportunities underscores the special burden that rests on the West. Simply put, it imposes a special obligation on all Europeans and Americans to demonstrate, by their own decisions and actions, that the West has a relevant message for humanity’s self-governance. The world urgently needs such a more vital West and together I am sure we can do it.
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Zbigniew K. Brzezinski