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Connecting With Eastern Europe
Americans have always sympathized with the Eastern European countries in their struggles for democracy, but for two centuries we haven’t been able to help much. Do we have a chance now? A distinguished expatriate looks at the odds.
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
It should be evident that throughout Eastern Europe, Communist rule during the last forty or forty-five years has been extremely unpopular as well as inefficient. In almost every case that rule was the result not of Communist propaganda or of popular revolutions but of the outcome of the Second World War. The Communist regimes in these countries were imposed by the power of Russia. With the retreat of Russian armed power from Eastern Europe, it is clear that the Communist period was but a passing and unrepeatable episode in the often tragic history of these peoples.
A political power vacuum is now opening up in Eastern Europe. Historical experiences as well as present conditions suggest that this vacuum, after the retreat of Russia, will again be filled by Germany. It would be a very shortsighted policy of the United States not to take into account this situation and not to consider the tolerable limits—geographical, political, economic, and eventually military limits—of the now hardly avoidable extension of German influence over the lives of these again independent but by no means strong nations.
Until now it was the United States that played the role of the principal anti-Communist power in the world. This, together with the prestige of American institutions, the forms of its popular culture, and the reputation of traditional American freedoms, has led to a very large reservoir of affection for America and things American that exist among all of the people of Eastern Europe. But we must be aware of the limits of American influence and of the proper exercise of it. Unlike after World War II, the United States is not able to offer something like a Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe. Nor are the situations and the political and social structures of the present Eastern European nations comparable to those of the Western European ones in 1947.
“Free enterprise” will be much less widespread in Eastern Europe than we think.
In one sense, the social structures of these nations are more democratic than those of the Western European nations forty or forty-five years ago—indeed, more than that of the United States two hundred years ago. By this I mean that Communist rule and industrialization have produced societies that are more homogeneous than they were in the past. Before World War II many of the Eastern European nations were still half-feudal. This is no longer so. The traditional upper classes are gone. The new upper classes have been, by and large, those of the Communist regimes and their beneficiaries, the ruling bureaucracies. These bureaucracies will now be replaced by other bureaucracies—a mix of public and private ones with considerable international connections. Yet both “free enterprise” and “capitalism” will be much less widespread than we are inclined to think, or, what is most likely, they will assume different forms, largely dependent on bureaucratic institutions and regulations.
While there are significant opportunities for American investments in some of these Eastern European countries, their extent and their meaning ought not be exaggerated. The opportunities for German and Austrian investments will far surpass the extent of American participation. This is already happening in Hungary and Yugoslavia, for example. In the long run, too, all international enterprises and industries depend increasingly on their national employees, workers, and managerial staffs. To believe that American management will be able to govern enterprises and industries in Eastern Europe permanently is a mistake. The applications of American management techniques might be appropriate, here and there, in the short run. But these techniques will hardly affect the habits and the inherited ways of thinking of various populations. The presumptions of all kinds of American management experts in teaching Eastern Europeans how to market and how to compute profits are exaggerated.
The same thing goes for the activities, at times ludicrous, of those ambitious young Americans now swarming in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw, pretending to teach the natives there the techniques of American “democracy”—that is, how to package and hype political parties and candidates for the purpose of winning elections. In the democratic and populist societies of Eastern Europe, the least valuable thing that Americans can teach is how to market politics—in other words, how to reduce liberty and democracy to popularity and publicity contests.