From Deconstruction to Reconstruction

It seems that not only many large-scale social projects but history at large sometimes operates according to the law of unintended consequences. Whereas a quarter of century ago the stated goal of many leading figures of the opposition movements in Central and Eastern Europe and of their supporters in Western Europe and North America was to overcome the divisions embodied by the Iron Curtain and to achieve a reunification of the West, the practical result of 25 years of continental and global changes seems to be its deconstruction.

Of course, the concept of the West has always been highly relative. According to some ancient etymologies, the real people of the “sunset,”“erev” in Hebrew, are in fact Arabs. What is the Near East to Central Europeans is the Middle East to Americans, and what is the West to Americans is the Wild West to many Europeans, etc.

The concept of the West that we have in mind is thus not a geographic one, although originally it was centered between the two shores of the Atlantic and the northern Mediterranean. It really came into its own with the onset of the Cold War, a way of self-identification as much as of self-differentiation from the illiberal ideologies and political systems on the eastern part of the Iron Curtain. It was associated with the concepts of the rule of law, electoral democracy, individual freedoms, human rights, and liberal capitalism. It gave rise to “Western” institutions such as the Atlantic Alliance, the European Union, the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, and the G7, tasked with defending, promoting and integrating the above concepts, often spoken of as “values.”

The success of the West in the second part of the last century was remarkable. Not only did it eventually prevail in the Cold War, but its values came to be adopted in other parts of Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. At the break of the millennium, the“West” included Central Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and offered a tempting goal for convergence to much of the rest of the world.

September 11 and the financial crisis shattered the certainties of the West and the complacency of the End of History. But even before these, the consensus on what the concept of the West entails started fraying at the edges in the absence of a clear and present threat. The Atlantic Alliance still serves a valuable purpose as an umbrella for a rainy day, but shows some fatigue after the exertions of Afghanistan and no eagerness to extend its guarantees and sphere of activity to other countries that might be keen on joining. The European Union withstood the crisis of the euro and helped bring several of its members back from the brink of default; its goals to see the completion of the single market, rejuvenate the European economy through enhanced knowledge, innovation and deregulation and embark on the road to deeper integration are, however, as yet unfulfilled. In some respects, it has even slipped back. At the moment, it seems to be wavering between its expressed instinct to forge an ever close union and its fear of the wrath of electorates in the upcoming elections to the European parliament. In many quarters, the awareness of the clear need for fundamental reform is clashing with the reluctance to embark on a cumbersome and risky prospect of a treaty change. After the accession of Croatia, the idea of further enlargement, a process embodying the promise and the ethos of Europe, seems to be a taboo subject in many European capitals. Even the four freedoms at the core of the European project are far from being unquestioned and universally accepted. The Polish plumber may have overcome the prejudices and proved his indispensability to the smooth operation of major European capitals; the Slovak ski instructor is still facing an uphill struggle on the Alpine slopes.

The apparent shrinking of the G8 to G7 is another sign, small as it may be, that the all-embracing strategy of the West has hit a wall. Of course, the question is whether Russia, a suspect economy with dubious democratic credentials should have ever become a member in the first place.

As the events in Ukraine unfold in what may be the first major European crisis of the 21st century, they herald not only an unmistakable threat to European security and stability but perhaps also an opportunity for the West to reconstitute itself. Since the Ukrainian citizens seem to have overwhelmingly decided to identify with Europe and the West, we owe it to them to support their choice by all political and economic means at our disposal but also by being who we proclaim to be. In doing so, we may yet rediscover the values that bind us together.

Michael Žantovský

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

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Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

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