Why We’re Not Looking Up to the West Anymore

Why We’re Not Looking Up to the West Anymore

When I was 7, growing up in a Czechoslovakia that had just recently shed Communist rule, my family took me on a trip to Hanover, Germany, to visit some émigré friends. This was my first visit to the West — the mythical place that most Eastern Europeans knew only from television commercials and Hollywood films. I was mesmerized by the obvious prosperity (to this day I can remember my first taste of the soft-serve ice cream at IKEA), the clean streets, and the sense of social order.

The West — both real and imagined — played a critical role in the success of post-Communist transitions the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic states. The prospect of becoming like the West enabled politicians from these countries to justify policy decisions that would not otherwise have been accepted.

Many of the necessary reforms carried short-term political, economic, or social costs. Yet their proponents were able to point out to the expected benefits of joining the European Union and NATO, which required prospective members to put their political and economic house in order. More fundamentally, many voters in the post-Communist world wanted their countries to be as prosperous, democratic, and well-governed as the West — or, at least, as they imagined it to be. Even if their idea of the West was naïve, it helped them carry the burden of policy changes that have ultimately turned Central Europe into a much better place than it was 26 years ago. 

It no longer works that way. The West’s role as an incentive for Eastern European politicians and voters was always a function of its glamour. And as once noted by a leading authority on that subject, Virginia Postrel, glamour is best understood as an “illusion that tells a truth about the audience’s desires, and it requires mystery and distance.”

That mystery and distance are gone. In stark contrast to 1991, when I visited Germany, many Eastern Europeans have now seen the West. They realize that it, too, suffers from economic and political problems. Its prosperity has been eroded by the fallout of the financial crisis. Its efforts to integrate immigrants have not always been a success. The European Union’s inept responses to these crises have degraded much of the image of the West as a self-evidently superior reference point.

By far the biggest blow to the image of the West, however, has been the rise of populist politics in Western countries. Until relatively recently, many Eastern Europeans — myself included — assumed that the likes of Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, or Slovakia’s Vladimir Meciar were a transitory phase of our emerging, still imperfect post-Communist democracies. Once our democratic governance became stronger, many of us believed, a better generation of leaders would emerge.

Unfortunately, the new generation of post-Communist leaders has proven underwhelming in comparison with statesmen of the caliber of Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. Anti-establishment and extremist parties, such as Jobbik in Hungary or Attack in Bulgaria, have grown in importance since the 1990s. Just last weekend, Slovaks elected an openly neo-Nazi party to their parliament, including a candidate who is being prosecuted for a racially motivated assault.

Back in the 1990s, when Slovakia was slipping toward crony authoritarianism under Meciar’s government, Western criticism was instrumental in reversing the drift away from democracy. Few Slovaks had any doubt that the serious-looking gentlemen in tailored suits working for the European Commission knew better than their own politicians. Even Madeleine Albright called Slovakia “a black hole in the heart of Europe.” Hurtful as it was, her comment served as a wake-up call for a country that was desperate to join the community of successful, prosperous liberal democracies.

If Trump becomes president of the world’s greatest democracy — or if someone like Le Pen accedes to power in France — the new and aspiring democracies will irrevocably lose a critical reference point and a driver of their own aspirations. It might be a reasonably safe bet that the West will weather the rise of the Trumps, Farages, Corbyns, Le Pens, and others. But the revival of this ugly brand of populism, deployed against the central tenets of liberal democracy, is already doing irreparable damage in the East.

Not only does the new brand of populism deprive the West of any of the residual glamour it once commanded in the eyes of Eastern Europeans, it also shifts the focus of conversation in the region toward populism, nationalism, and xenophobia — ways of thinking once considered antithetical to our becoming prosperous “Western” countries. In so doing, it helps the propagandists in the Kremlin achieve what they could never manage on their own — namely, to prompt Eastern Europeans to question their geopolitical allegiance.

Of course, it will be impossible for the West to restore the aura it once had in the minds of Eastern Europeans. By definition, glamour fades as it becomes more familiar. But if the Western friends of democratic capitalism want to secure its future in the East, they must find a quick antidote to the populist wave.

In the photo, Donald Trump speaks at the CFE Arena during a campaign stop on the campus of the University of Central Florida in Orlando on March 5, 2016.

Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images