Magazine article National Forum

The New World Order and the Pursuit of Democracy in Central Europe

Magazine article National Forum

The New World Order and the Pursuit of Democracy in Central Europe

Article excerpt

When I first traveled to Poland in June 1973, I believed the world of communism to be a fairly stable alternative modern order. I knew it wasn't a good order, or in particularly good order, but I assumed its permanence. I was not unusual. Everyone then recognized a bipolar world consisting of the two superpowers. Some accepted the polarity as inevitable, while others imagined there would someday be a convergence of one sort or other. Still others imagined a Cold--or Hot--War victory; but even among these, few really expected the final showdown to happen in our times. Indeed, by the late seventies, with the oil shock and stagflation, it was not unreasonable to assume that the ascendant superpower was the Soviet Union. Henry Kissinger's realpolitik seemed to be based on such a vision, as did Ronald Reagan's anti-Communist crusade. Obviously, we now live in a transformed geopolitical world. Although it may not be a new world order, as George Bush ideologically depicted it during the Persian Gulf War, and it may not be particularly stable or desirable, as we have come to realize during the travails of the people of Somalia and Sarajevo, it is a transformation nonetheless. The epicenter of this transformation was Central Europe. It is, therefore, appropriate, even pressing, to ask what will likely emerge there, after the fall of communism. We should first note that it is unlikely to be just one thing or even to go in just one direction, whether of dictatorship or democracy, presidential or parliamentary system, nationalism and fundamentalism or tolerance, economic breakdown or a robust economy, cultural repression or cultural freedom. It follows that we in the West, as well as citizens of the old bloc, must be open to variations on democratic and not-so-democratic themes and be ready to improvise appropriately on these variations.

In assessing the situations of the previously existing socialist societies, we observe some geopolitical regularities. The situation of Eastern and Central Europe is different from that of the Soviet Union, and in Eastern and Central Europe there are important differences between the northern and southern areas. Roughly speaking, in terms of the extremes along a post-totalitarian continuum, democratic prospects are brightest in the northwestern sector of the old bloc and dimmest in the southeastern zone. Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia have the strongest grounds for hope; while Georgia and Azerbaijan, along with Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania, provide ample grounds for pessimism. Yet things are not so bad in the southeast that the problems cannot be overcome, nor are they so good in the northwest that the new governments cannot fail. Further, because of the growing interdependence in Europe, failure in one place increases the likelihood of failure elsewhere, and success as well may be contagious.

The dangers are clear. Nationalist tensions have already led to the brutality of war. Indecisive and contradictory economic reforms have effectively undermined the command economy without market replacement. Industrial strikes have spread widely. And many people among both the leaderships of the new nations and the general populations, lacking both long democratic traditions and recent experience with democratic opposition, seek easy solutions--often authoritarian ones. Those who want to be democratic are discovering the complexities of democratic deliberations and decision-making. The ineffectiveness of the democrats and the impatience of the authoritarians make a volatile mixture, and constitute a prescription for post-Communist despair.

Yet I do not think this response is appropriate to the present situation. Civility may be more infectious than chaos. Those factors that led to the fall of 1989 were, and continue to be, very powerful. The dream of a "normal Europe" may prevail.

I suspect that people will muddle their way along the path to democracy in the nations of Central Europe. …

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