Dr. Stephen Walt, who is one of the best political scientists today, wrote the article “Back to the Future, World Politics Edition,” in the magazine Foreign Policy. In it, he writes that when he was going for his Ph.D. one of his qualifying exams involved the question “How much of 21st century world politics is new and different, and how much of it is the same old story?”
Sometimes in international relations, problems that you thought were solved have a way of coming around again. They rear their ugly heads, mocking you for your optimism about human nature, reminding you that while you might have a better theory, they have a simpler slogan.
After World War I, the Great Powers redrew the European maps. Empires were broken up, and small nationalities received their independence. Freed by the West, they tried to emulate the West, trying out democracy and free markets.
But when the Great Depression struck, the experiment was destroyed. With Stalin and the Soviet Union on their borders, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria threw themselves into an alliance with Adolf Hitler, whose propaganda made him seem like he weathered the economic chaos, and remilitarized to stop communism. Anti-Semitism was a seductive policy. Britain and France sold out Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler. Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Poland.
After nearly losing in World War II, the USSR stormed back with a vengeance. Every eastern European country was invaded and occupied by the Communists. Anyone who stood up to the Soviets was executed, and their country was crushed by Soviet tanks and soldiers.
I visited the region in 1990 while I was a college student. It was such an optimistic time, as Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and East Germans seemed to be waking up from a nightmare to learn they were finally free to choose their political and economic destiny with the fall of Communism. Their optimism was infectious. I climbed one if the final sections of the Berlin Wall still standing, pounding away at it with a hammer and chisel that I rented. It was a great time to be an East European, and a supportive American!
Remember how I said things have a way of coming back? Those fledgling East European countries, who threw in their lot with the United States and West Europe via NATO and the EU, were hit hard by the Great Recession. Populist leaders blamed the West for their troubles. Instead of picking on Jews in East Europe, it was time to demonize Muslims. And these countries are swallowing Vladimir Putin’s propaganda and “Potemkin Villages” from the Sochi Olympics (fake villages put up for the press, like Catherine the Great’s system in the old days).
Leaders who stand up to the Russians are attacked and lose territory, like the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine. Others are like Vladimir Putin, former Communists who sell the old totalitarianism with a new populist playbook to cover the authoritarian policies. And Putin is giving them all the financial and hacker + bot help they need to have their parties win every election. The latest case Putin ally is Czech Republic President Milos Zeman, who won a narrow reelection battle against scientist Jiri Drahos, who supported keeping the country in the NATO and the EU. Now that his sycophant has won, Putin is poised to move another country from the Western column to the Eastern orbit.
Whether you think Putin is the new friend to the USA or not, understand that this supporter of Wikileaks and Julian Assange (who employed Chelsea Manning, the leaker of our Afghanistan secrets, currently running in interesting circles), protects Edward Snowden, undermining not only our efforts in East Europe, but also the Middle East.
One can pooh-pooh the threat Putin represents, forgetting those who either appeased or admired Hitler decades ago, or did the same for “Uncle Joe” Stalin. It’s not too late for this country to decide who’s an actual friend, and who is a threat. But like the characters from “Back to the Future,” we’re running out of time.
John A. Tures is associate professor of political science at LaGrange College; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JohnTures2.