An expert's point of view on a current event.

Toward Open Societies

The Soviet Union is gone, but the work needed to create free states in its place is far from over.


In the last five years I have devoted much of my time, energy, and money to Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union because I believed that the collapse of the Soviet system was a revolutionary event whose outcome would shape the course of history.

In the last five years I have devoted much of my time, energy, and money to Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union because I believed that the collapse of the Soviet system was a revolutionary event whose outcome would shape the course of history.

I had set up the Open Society foundation in 1979 and started the first local operation in my native Hungary in 1984, but I increased my involvement as the collapse of the Soviet system accelerated. Now there is a network of foundations in more than 20 countries to help promote the transition from closed to open societies. My annual contributions have risen from $3 million in 1979 to $300 million in 1993. However, the amount of money spent is not the best indication of the efficacy of the operation; some of the best projects take the least money. For instance, we successfully commissioned the writing of nearly 1,000 new textbooks to replace Marxism-Leninism in Russian schools, yet when we pumped more money into the project it became riddled with corruption.

At the time I first became involved, communism had given rise to closed societies throughout the region. The state was dominated by the party and the society dominated by the state. The individual was at the mercy of the party-state apparatus. Communist dogma was false exactly because it claimed to incorporate the ultimate truth. Its tenets could be enforced only by doing a great deal of violence to reality and, even then, they could not be sustained indefinitely. The gap be­tween dogma and reality became ever more evident and the sway of dogma over people’s minds ever more tenuous until, eventually, com­munist regimes collapsed.

There was a moment of euphoria in 1989, when people felt liber­ated from oppressive regimes. That moment could have been used to set in motion the transition to an open society. It was that opportu­nity that induced me to throw all my energies into the process. But I must now admit that the moment has passed and the opportunity for any rapid transformation is gone.

The breakdown of a closed society does not automatically lead to an open society, because an open society is a more advanced, more sophisticated form of organization than a closed one. Freedom is not merely the absence of repression. A society in which people are free requires institutions that protect freedom and, above all, it requires people who believe in those institutions. The institutions themselves need to be much more sophisticated because they must allow for the expression of different views and interests, whereas a closed society recognizes only one point of view — the ruling one. In short, the tran­sition from a closed to an open society is a step forward and upward. It cannot be accomplished in one revolutionary leap without a hand from the outside. I tried to offer such a hand, but governments in the open societies of the free world were not similarly motivated. There was goodwill toward Eastern Europe at the time, but somehow it was not translated into effective action. Government policy, both in Eu­rope and the United States, was characterized by a singular lack of comprehension and vision.

Compare the reaction to the collapse of the Soviet empire with the reaction to the collapse of the Nazi empire. Then, the United States still had the vision, and the generosity, to engage in the Mar­shall Plan, and the Marshall Plan worked wonders. It did not merely provide assistance, it provided a framework within which the coun­tries of Europe could cooperate. It did not merely send technical ex­perts to impart their wisdom, it brought large numbers of Europeans to the United States and allowed them to form their own agenda. We seem to have forgotten those positive experiences. By the time the Soviet empire collapsed, there was no political support for large-scale assistance, and "Marshall Plan" had become a dirty word.

In the absence of Western leadership, the collapse of the Soviet system did not lead to the emergence of open societies. Moreover, there can be no assurance that what was not accomplished in the heat of the revolutionary moment will be attained in a slower, more laborious process. On the contrary, insofar as a pattern is emerging, it is pointing in the opposite direction.

The breakdown of closed societies based on the universal dogma of communism has led to a widespread rejection of all universal ideas, and the countries that used to constitute the Soviet empire are search­ing for an organizing principle in their own particular histories. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. But the dominant emerging theme is national or ethnic identity rather than any universal concept such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, or open society.

This has created a very dangerous situation because national griev­ances can be exploited to establish more or less closed societies, which promote conflict. In order to mobilize society behind the state, a state needs an enemy; if it lacks an enemy, it must invent one. That is what Hitler did when he identified Jews as the enemies of the German Yolk, and he has many imitators in the post-communist world. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of grievances, because communist regimes sup­pressed all national or ethnic aspirations that did not suit their purposes.

Although some of the nationalist leaders are former dissidents, former communists are usually more adept at exploiting national sen­timent because they understand better how to operate the levers of power. They can forge greater national consensus than can demo­cratic leaders striving for an open society. Look at Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, Vladimir Me­ciar in Slovakia, and Leonid Kravchuk in Ukraine, and compare the kind of majorities they could muster at the height of their popularity with the narrow political base that pro-Western democratic govern­ments have had to contend with in countries like Russia, Poland, Bul­garia, and Macedonia.

In this context, the recent electoral victories of former communist parties in countries like Hungary, Poland, or Lithuania are not, by themselves, too disturbing. On the whole, these are reform commu­nists who want to move away from communism as much as possible. Their reemergence constitutes a welcome extension of the democra­tic spectrum. I was quite pleased at first with the outcome of last year’s elections in Hungary. The nationalist line was rejected by the elec­torate, and the fact that the Socialist party entered into a coalition with the Free Democrats on the basis of a well-conceived, well-artic­ulated reform program augured well for the future. Unfortunately, the government’s inability to execute the program shows the negative side of the reform communist tradition: It values social peace above all and is unwilling to take the tough measures necessary for reform.

In the case of Poland, the changeover was even more unfortunate. The government had just begun to function properly when it was de­feated, and the radical and painful reforms undertaken in 1990 had just begun to bear fruit. But the course of reform was irreversible, and consequently Poland is probably the most dynamic country in Europe today, both in terms of its economy and its spirit. The worst that can happen now is that it may lose some momentum. All in all, there is hardly any chance of a return to communism. Communism as a dogma is well and truly dead. The real danger is the emergence of would-be nationalist dictators — "NADIs," for short. They are playing in a field that is definitely tilted in their favor. It is much easier to mo­bilize society behind a real or imagined national injury than behind abstract ideas like democracy or open society. Building an open so­ciety is essentially a constructive process, and it is only too easy to use ethnic conflict to undermine its foundations.

Take the case of the former Yugoslavia, a country that had been open to the West for more than 20 years and had developed the in­tellectual resources that are needed for an open society. In 1990, monetary reform was introduced in Yugoslavia and Poland at the same time. Yugoslavia was much better prepared to carry it out. It had a group of people who had been trained by the International Mone­tary Fund and the World Bank, and the reform was, in fact, initially more successful than in Poland. Then Milosevic raided the treasury in the course of his electoral campaign, which contributed to the de­struction of monetary stability. That was the end of the attempt to transform Yugoslavia into an open society.

And now we have an even more striking example: Greece. Here is a country that is a member of the European Union and of NATO, one that is fully integrated into the international community. Yet it has whipped national sentiment into a frenzy over the name "Macedonia." It has inflated a small and weak neighbor to the north, the Republic of Macedonia, into a threat to the territorial integrity of Greece. Admittedly, there is a minority in Macedonia that harbors irredentist dreams based on ethnic injuries suffered in the past. But the government of Macedonia is genuinely devoted to the creation of a multiethnic, democratic state. It is ready to make virtually every concession short of giving up its own identity. But Greek public opinion looks to the Macedonian extremists, not to the Macedonian government, and the issue has been exploited for domestic political purposes in Greece.

In the meantime, the Macedonian economy, already severely damaged by the sanctions against Serbia, is collapsing under the weight of the Greek embargo. The railroad connection runs north and south, and Macedonia is cut off on both sides. As a result, heavy industry, which relies on rail transportation, has been brought to a virtual standstill. The economic crisis is endangering political stability. The multiethnic, democratic coalition is threatened by extremists on both the Slavic-Macedonian and the Albanian sides. It may easily fall apart under the strain of the embargo and, if Macedonia falls apart, there will be a third Balkan war.

There is plenty to worry about in Eastern Europe. When I embarked on my project, I was planning on a short-term campaign to provide an example for the more slow-moving and cumbersome institutions, including governments, of our open societies. But I was sadly mistaken. Now I think in biblical terms — 40 years in the wilderness. The battle for open societies is not lost, as the examples of Poland and Hungary demonstrate. But it will take a long time and a lot of help from the outside, and that is what worries me.

Fear of Freedom

Open societies allow people to use their creative energies. Freedom produces prosperity. But I have always been aware of a fatal weakness in the concept of open society. People living in an open society do not even recognize that they are living in one, let alone treat open society as a desirable goal worthy of sacrifice. In one way, freedom is like the air: People struggle for it only when they are deprived of it. When it is there, they take it for granted. But in an, other way freedom is very different: If you do not care for it and protect it, it has a tendency to disappear.

If there is any lesson to be learned from the revolutionary events in Eastern Europe since 1989, it is that freedom is more than the absence of repression, and the collapse of a closed society does not automatically create an open society. The trouble is that this lesson has not been learned. When the Soviet empire collapsed, Westerners had no hesitation in declaring it a victory for the free world. But, equally, we had no inclination to make any sacrifices for the sake of establishing free and open societies in that part of the world. The consequences are now painfully obvious, but we have not even started to recognize them.

What has gone wrong? I believe our concept of freedom has changed. In the Second World War, freedom was promoted as an idea that we were ready to fight and to sacrifice for. And the idea as it was then conceived involved freedom not only in our own country, but also in those where totalitarianism reigned. This concept carried over into the postwar period. It was responsible for the dismantling of colonial regimes and the forging of an anticommunist alliance.

But gradually that idea faded and another one emerged. This idea explicitly rejected the pursuit of freedom as a valid objective of foreign policy. This idea was "realism," which maintained that states ought to pursue their own self, interest as determined by their geopolitical situation and accord moral or ethical considerations only a secondary role. Such considerations can be useful for propaganda purposes — for mobilizing public opinion at home or abroad-but you can get into a lot of trouble if you actually believe your own propaganda. The companion piece to realism in international relations was the concept of laissez-faire economics, which enjoyed a miraculous revival in the 1980s. It holds that the unhampered pursuit of self, interest leads to the best allocation of resources. These have been the two main concepts guiding our response to the collapse of the Soviet systerm, but they are woefully inadequate for the situation at hand.

As long as we were locked in deadly combat with the Evil Empire, we had a clear view of our own place in the world. The world order was stable because each side had the capacity to destroy the other and therefore neither side could risk all-out war. We could also define ourselves in terms of our enemy: We were the leaders of the free world. But now the stability of the world order has been destroyed by the internal disintegration of the Soviet empire and, what is worse, we have lost our sense of identity. The United States still wants to be a superpower and leader of the free world, but Americans do not know what those terms mean. We do not know what the free world stands for and we do not know whether we should stand for the free world, because we have come to believe that our way of life is based on the pursuit of self-interest, as exemplified by the doctrines of realism and laissez-faire.

In some ways the present situation is unprecedented. In the past, peace and stability have been maintained by an imperial power, by a balance of powers, or by a combination of the two. Right now, we do not have any of that. The United States does not have the capacity, or the interest, to dominate the world the way Great Britain did in the nineteenth century. Britain derived enough benefit from free trade to justify maintaining a vast naval fleet. The United States, however, is no longer the main beneficiary of free trade and cannot afford to be the world’s policeman. We must depend on collective action, but we have no clear idea what the collective interest is.

The result is a dangerous power vacuum. There was some hope that it would be filled by the United Nations, but the U.N. is no bet­ter than the states that constitute it. The member states generally pursue their own national self-interest, to the detriment of the collective interest, and the U.N. is managed by a bureaucracy that is more interested in its own survival than in the survival of our civilization. International institutions have almost never been able to maintain peace, and there is no reason to believe that the current sit­uation will prove to be any different. The disasters that have befallen U.N. intervention in Bosnia and Somalia provide ample evidence.

A Way Out

What is to be done? I propose that we declare the creation and preservation of open societies as one of the objectives of foreign policy. In the case of the former Soviet bloc, we should declare it as the main objective. I draw a distinction between the former Soviet bloc and the rest of the world because the Soviet system has irretrievably broken down; what system takes its place will have a profound influence on the course of history and therefore on our own future. In the rest of the world, the promotion of open societies is one of many competing objectives; in the former Soviet bloc it is of paramount importance. In my opinion, even the nuclear issue ought to be subordinated to it.

How fostering open societies in the rest of the world can be reconciled with other policy goals is a matter of judgment, or more likely misjudgment. Fostering an open society in China is a valid objective, but how best to do this is debatable. Since our government has opted for trade over the withdrawal of most-favored-nation status, we will have to ensure that the flow of capital is accompanied by the flow of information and ideas. Pressing for an opening of domestic markets in Japan is also a valid policy objective, but we have not yet found the right way to go about it. In Haiti, where military intervention could not be avoided, creating a more open society ought to be its avowed purpose, and the success of the operation ought to be judged by that criterion. The last time the United States occupied Haiti it trained a military force that oppressed Haitian citizens after American forces withdrew.

An open society is a form of organization that can be loosely described as democracy. But the concept of open society is more comprehensive. It means not only a democratically elected government but also a society that is not dominated by the state. Such a concept relies on a strong civil society and the rule of law. And it is not enough for the government to be elected by a majority; it must also respect minorities and minority opinions.

I propose substituting the framework of open and closed societies for the old framework of communism versus the free world. The old framework was highly suspect even when it was relevant, because anticommunism could be used to justify actions that were incompatible with an open society. The new framework allows us to define ourselves in terms of what we stand for rather than in terms of our enemies. It provides a perspective that is woefully lacking at present. For one thing, it tells us that nationalist dictatorships are as much of a threat today as communism used to be. For another, it tells us that the conflict in Bosnia is not a civil war between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims but rather a struggle between the civic and the ethnic concept of citizenship in which the civic concept has lost out. Had we understood this, we would have acted differently.

We do not have much time to come to our senses. The collapse of the Soviet system was a revolutionary event. Those who were di­rectly affected could not help but realize they were living through a revolution. But we are all indirectly affected because the Soviet col­lapse meant the end of the stable world order that prevailed during the Cold War — only we do not realize it. We carry on with business as usual while our institutions of collective security disintegrate. The United Nations is discredited, NATO is in disarray, and unless we rec­ognize that the world order has broken down, we face world disorder. The disintegration of the Atlantic Alliance will match the disinte­gration of the Soviet empire.

For better or worse, the new world order must be based on the United Nations, because the United States is not willing or able to act as the policeman of the world. Nor can the United States with­draw from the world, and it does not have any other institution of collective security to put in its place. The U.N. is as good, or bad, as the Great Powers that enjoy veto power in the Security Council. Dur­ing the Cold War it was immobilized by antagonism between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. In the Bosnian debacle it was discredited by the disunity among the Western democracies-the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. To make the United Nations viable, unity among the Western democracies needs to be restored. Only the concept of open society can provide a unifying principle. It includes shared values and a common interest in peace and stability and free movement of goods, people, capital, and ideas. The creation and preservation of open societies cannot be the only objective of foreign policy, but in the case of the former Soviet bloc countries it should be given high priority.

Once that principle is accepted, a constructive engagement with Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet empire follows. Its objective is to help the transition to open societies and it includes aid through international financial institutions, trade, and investment. Russia could be expected to be similarly constructive in the Security Council, transforming it into an effective instrument of collective security.

Admittedly, there will be many conflicts in and around the former Soviet empire. How those conflicts are resolved will depend greatly on the character of the societies concerned. Realism will be as much the outcome of the internal evolution of those societies as its determinant. For instance, the economic and political collapse of Ukraine would practically ensure the reemergence of Russia as an imperial power. Conversely, the survival of Ukraine as a functioning, market-oriented democratic country would help push Russia in the same direction.

Fortunately, the Group of Seven heads of state recognized the importance of Ukraine at their Naples summit in July 1994 by offering $4 billion in aid if Ukraine embarks on a policy of economic reform. The newly elected president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, was determined to seize that lifeline, and he has embarked on an ambitious reform program. It is the first time since the collapse of the Soviet empire that international assistance is driving economic reform. It goes to show that if the creation and preservation of open societies is elevated to an explicit objective of policy, it may actually produce the desired results.

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