A plea for realism & pragmatism from Romania
The fact that we are experiencing a complicated phase in our history, marked by several layered crises, is beyond obvious. What do we learn from recent history to build stronger foundations for the future of democracy? Romania’s trajectory throughout the last few tumultuous decades, navigating an explosive regional context offers thought-provoking lessons for the region, a warning for the West, and reasons for optimism.
There is a lot of pressure, both internal and external, that threatens the stability of liberal democracies nowadays. The pressure comes from the increasing polarization imposed by “majority minorities” (Gest, 2022) in pluralistic states.
We learn of this pressure from the news and reports about hostile actors influencing elections. We see it in the authoritarian tendencies manifested sometimes even by parties with democratic backgrounds. Western civilization is at a turning point, where democratic resilience is being tested by new threats. The focus on new nationalisms - and their impact on the liberal system - is already igniting the imagination of restoration hopefuls. So are the developments concerning the other extreme, where the legitimate fight for new rights and liberties can open the way to excesses and even new forms of censorship. There is a widespread assault on liberal democracy (Fukuyama, 2022), and extremist options undermine its credibility and test its robustness.
But in the midst of this reality dominated by aggressive news and contradictory information that confuses anyone who tries to make sense of the world, there are also positive elements, with the potential to inspire hope about the future of liberal democracies.
I believe there is a way to avoid a dispute between the new extremisms and the values of liberal democracy. It is based on reaffirming moderation, which is at the core of traditional democracies, and bringing new, unconventional allies into this fight.
My analysis is based on the premise that developments in the tectonic areas where democracy intersects undemocratic regimes can shape the future, security and prosperity of the civilized world. Eastern Europe is today such an area of geopolitical competition. After having been for decades the periphery of the Western democratic world, today this region is the center of a confrontation that transcends the bloody military conflict in Ukraine. The Russian aggression is horrifying, unprovoked and we all hope that the West will remain solidary in supporting the Ukrainian cause. Ukraine’s military, economic and cultural endurance is decisive both for its statehood, but also for the way the global future is shaped.
But in the shadow of this war, stimulated by it, a significant, if less analyzed phenomenon is on-going: an affirmation of resilience from the new democratic societies, the Eastern European countries that, 3 decades ago, left the Communist block and began the long transition towards the civilized world.
For the first time in ages, Eastern Europe is not only a source of conflict, disputes, and challenges, but also the environment that fosters signs of a new era. Today, a number of these countries have finalized their transition and are capable of demonstrating new capabilities - Romania and Poland among them. I will focus my observations and remarks on Romania, a country that is less known, and perhaps has been less promoted on the international stage, but has nevertheless been, throughout these difficult years, an example of resilience, moderation, and democratic consolidation. This is a testing time for less established democracies that have, at times, sent mixed signals – a time to demonstrate maturity, tenaciousness, stability, and strength. During such periods, if they remain unfalteringly attached to their democratic trajectory, these democracies can become sources of stability and development in the region and showcases of democratic resilience for the entire civilized world.
THE LARGER CONTEXT
The “global village” (McLuhan, 1962) has always been a slightly illusory concept, despite the fact that the global democratic wave, accelerated after the fall of Communism, briefly created the misconception that widespread democratization is an unavoidable process.
But civilization-based studies have consistently demonstrated, especially in recent years, that economic development and formal implementation of democratic institutions are not sufficient conditions to ensure authentic democratization. The success of a democratization process, as well as the actual fostering of prosperity and security were always influenced by the cultural context around this process. Even during the most profound phase of globalization, we were not witnessing the creation of a uniform society, of a “global village”, of an aspirational union. Quite the contrary, distinctive civilizations coexisted, with varying degrees of tolerance and development. Extensive studies (e.g. World Values Surveys) and renowned authors (such as Pippa Norris or Ronald Inglehart - see for example Inglehart, 1977; Inglehart, 2018; Norris & Inglehart, 2019) have constantly reaffirmed, during the last decades, the role of values and culture for democratic success and even for the efficiency of economic development. Societies are dissimilar not only through the levels of development they achieve, but especially through the values at their core. These values also influence the level of social participation, as well as the level of society-wide tolerance and inclusivity.
Western civilization has the best chances of success compared to the alternatives due to the fact that it is not closed, and its triumph is not dependent on isolation. This conclusion is not based solely on the better arguments included in its foundational theory (see classical authors, from Tocqueville to present day theoreticians, for more in-depth series of reasons), but also on the practical results achieved during the last century (the increase in the total number of democracies, the rising quality of life, the attainment of liberties, progress, and innovation etc.).
The cultural explanation must not be ignored when we discuss economic or democratic success. In other words, cultural characteristics are just as relevant when they explain a society’s success as are the more “objective” ones (economy, institutions, formal rules etc).
The liberal democratic model has been promoted in many different regions – we could even simplify by stating that it has been proposed in all regions of the former Western empires. But it has only proven successful in areas where the establishment of new institutions was accompanied by a conscious effort to stimulate a different cultural model, based on inclusivity, trust, tolerance, associative behavior. It takes much more than free elections to make a liberal democracy. Inherent mechanisms to control “dictatorship” tendencies by aggressive minorities are also vital. An accumulation of factors, measured through political culture indicators, determine and shape a society’s capacity to prevent such abuse. It is one of the reasons why the model was implemented fruitfully in fewer areas than it was promoted. Indeed, it succeeded in several Eastern European countries, but it took a rather lengthy period of time, following a slower rhythm than previously anticipated.
We don’t live in a world dominated by the ideals of liberalism, but in a space where national characteristics and local values have influenced institutions, rules and regulations, and have created own-brand democracies, as well as markets with various degrees of freedom. Not all resemble the initial (or the ideal) model.
The acceleration of globalization led to democracy spreading around the world, but also to the assertiveness of countries and models that had previously attained only limited, regional influence (for example, the notion of Chinese or Iranian influence in the Western Balkans would have sounded profoundly inadequate 15 years ago). Today, free-market globalization permitted the acceleration of the competition between models, at the same time as legitimizing the search of multiple identities for each society. The actors that promoted globalization obtained outstanding economic effects, but unexpected effects were also made possible, and are now being used to undermine the ascent of the liberal model.
A return to the previous global dynamic is not possible, even if the pandemic impact will dissipate and the Ukraine war will end. Analysts discuss a so-called post-neoliberal world (Foroohar, 2022), when the difference will be made by a set of skills capable of influencing a nation’s success, such as the ability to learn and adapt; efficient institutions; creating equal opportunities.
What will not change – and this is great news for democratic countries in Eastern Europe - is American influence over the global order. Despite the fact that the US has lost its global economic domination in the context of the Chinese rise, its political, cultural and moral influence remains. Even domestic turmoil and division have not affected the US’ standing as a source of stability, prosperity and democracy stronger than any other alternatives (Ikenberry, 2022). American influence doesn’t come solely from economic or military power, but from the power of the ideas it represents and of the model it projects – a model based on inclusion, rights, rule of law, equal opportunities, innovation and adaptation. Hence the anti-Western reaction, measured daily through the evaluation of state-led propaganda, which is based on undermining trust in Western values, and not on promoting an alternative model. Also, there is an increased European involvement in promoting liberal democracy in our region. So, from our point of view, we still have very active and determined partners, like Germany, France or the UK, besides the strategic partnership with the US.
This offensive, although potent, visible and constant, hasn’t had decisive effects on trust in the power of the liberal model. Why? Because there are no viable alternatives by turning to Russia or returning to excessive nationalism. Democratic states are capable of adjusting and protecting their democratic culture – even if, at times, that takes uproar, protests and projecting an image of internal breaks. The fight between the liberal and the illiberal model is an echo of last century’s similar battle between Communism and anti-Communism. The tremendous advantage of the liberal world is its perfect compatibility with national values. As a matter of fact, its success is founded on characteristics at national level, which enables its affirmation in regions where diversity, tolerance and pluralism are stimulated; these characteristics are notable in several cultural contexts, such as the West that we are a part of.
EASTERN EUROPE AND THE RISE OF DEMOCRACY
Eastern Europe, three decades after its escape from communism, is currently the theater of the biggest confrontations, and the region where the civilized world is testing its capacity to adjust. It is also a space of geopolitical competition, where not only the West is involved, but also authoritarian actors from the rest of the world (Russia, Iran, China etc.). The main anti-Western strategy employed in this region is based on undermining its connection to the West, through stimulating nationalistic tendencies (and there are well-documented Russian strategies to deepen cleavages, stimulate anti-Western messages, target religion etc.) or enabling depictions of the “decadent/failed West”, associated with the destruction of traditional values.
Liberal democracies in the region are currently being tested. And while the Western world is debating polarizing, challenging themes like artificial intelligence and its impact, climate change, adjusting to potential future cataclysms, this region is confronted with a more concrete and immediate threat. The big picture is evocative of the metaphor of the Wall from the popular Game of Thrones fictional universe: while the world outside is divided by domestic disputes, powerful enemies from beyond “the Wall” threaten to destroy everything that has been accomplished over the last century. From the position that I have held for the last few years, I was able to witness various waves of this threat, and I can assess its dynamic for the future. The pressure will intensify, especially during the military conflict in the region, which will undoubtedly have a decisive impact for generations to come.
The battle is not only being fought over countries in the region that already are liberal democracies and open societies. It is also about influencing those that aspire to this position: Western Balkans and former USSR countries that want to join the Western family - not just Ukraine, but especially the Republic of Moldova. They are targeted by Russian and Chinese offensives, manifested through “hard” pressures (through economy and energy-related measures) and also “soft” ones (through media campaigns, propaganda, attacks against democratic values etc.). The defense of their path to freedom cannot be expected solely from US and EU support; we must also assume an active role, as often as we can. And by “we” I mean the Eastern countries that have successfully ended their transition and reached democratic maturity.
Not all countries manifested the same resilience thus far. Romania, like Poland, is one of the pillars of “the Wall” that protects Europe and NATO. We maintain an unwavering political will to support the Western effort to build active forms of protection. We rely on steadfast popular support for this process – two thirds of Romanians choose the West compared to alternatives, and support for Russia is below 5-6%. The political class has been consistently supportive of decisions meant to strengthen the pro-Western path, as well as to consolidate strategic relations with the US, the EU and NATO.
This is a region where Western influence can be strengthened, and the negative offensive can be blocked. This time, Romania benefits from a privileged position – for the first time in centuries, it is on the right side of “the Wall”. From this position it can play an influential role in the region – not just in the economic field, but also in the strategic, military and cultural ones.
THE ROMANIAN EXAMPLE
Romania’s example is illustrative of new democracies, that have now two battles to fight – the first, to consolidate their own democratic structures against temptations originated from beyond “the Wall”; the second, to proactively strengthen the region and help the vulnerable (such as Ukraine, but also Moldova and the Western Balkans). For many years, the US and the EU has been the main engines of promoting and defending democracies, proactively disseminating the liberal democracy model that we all believe in. European countries with strong democratic traditions at the core of the EU have always been standards of functional democracy. But a shift is happening nowadays, and new opportunities arise; the region can create its own engine of proactive development. This role can be undertaken by Romania and Poland. Ukraine can be by their side, should the current aggression be overcome.
The last 10-15 years have brought forth many illustrations of Romania’s strength:
There are also recent specific examples showcasing Romania’s efficient involvement and positive impact in the region. During the first months of the Covid pandemic crisis, Romania volunteered to host a strategic EU stockpile of medical equipment to ensure fast movement of resources for hospitals. After the start of the Ukraine war, Romania assumed an active role not only in dealing with the refugee pressure, but also in using new routes to enable transportation of grains from Ukraine, as well as financing the presence of more NATO troops on our territory. More recently, to deal with the effects of the energy crisis, Romania has already initiated investment plans to increase production and transport capacities.
These steps have been made in the absence of public proactive acknowledgement of their significance, or extensive PR - perhaps due to lack of experience with national branding, a national tendency to focus on own weaknesses rather than strengths, or a historic predilection for caution and reserve. Other countries in the region, like Hungary or Poland, have worked more dilligently to build national brands reflecting their changing realities. Without making a self-promotion effort, Romania’s actual progress and results have been at least as obvious as our neighbors’. These steps have been possible due to the sheer will of the new generation formed during these 30 years, to ensure democratic maturity and to shape a pro-Western civic profile. This generation understood that this endeavor requires domestic stability - to avoid potential flare-ups related to ethnic anxieties, religious tensions, inequalities etc. - at the same time as an external effort. Understanding the practice of freedom was simultaneous with learning new tools for survival and adjustment to the new democratic system. We accumulated experiences that current generations from other countries simply don’t have, as we burned through the stages of democratic development during these 30 years. We have now reached a period of maturity that comes with multiple opportunities.
Romania is now ready to assume a bigger role within the democratic family in this complicated region at the NATO border, as an exporter of stability and an active factor of regional development.
THE FUTURE CONFRONTATIONS AND THE ROLE OF EASTERN EUROPE.
This type of evolution is highly dependent on one condition: in this difficult context, the West must not forget or ignore this Eastern region of “the Wall”, that is bravely standing and fighting against anti-democratic rage. Everything we build from now on must take into account this dynamic, in a manner inspired by Kissinger’s pragmatism. Otherwise, if the West does not have a strong voice to affirm its values, the local rhetoric constantly enables the ascent of populism, radicalism and intolerance. The Balkans and the East of Europe has already witnessed enough such episodes, with dramatic consequences.
We are not experiencing an end of history, like Fukuyama had anticipated, but a new phase in our history. It is the end of transition. It has been a historic stage that brought the expansion of the democratic family and enabled the rise of new engines of democratic growth in the region. The immediate future can bring a new era of accomplishment for liberal democracy if the lessons learnt here are processed, understood and properly assessed.
This is a moment for consolidating liberal democracies, but not only by promoting classic liberal values. For this process to be fruitful and have a long-lasting impact, the particular values and traditions of each society must be taken into account. In Romania, for example, progressive principles and beliefs shared in highly developed urban areas coexist with a focus on local and national pride in other areas. These life philosophies are not incompatible; understanding the fact that they can harmoniously be part of the same national identity is key to Romania’s advancement. This perspective can lead to the creation of a blueprint for Eastern European democracies: anchored in their history and traditions and aspiring to modern ideals.
For many years, the paradigm for promoting democracy was based on a standard, cold and formal design, with no consideration for local particularities, culture and values. In reality, these were the particular factors that enabled certain countries to successfully consolidate their democracies, and caused others to fail and revert to illiberal approaches. If Romania is today an example of successful transition, it is precisely because there were no attempts of erasing local and national identity – culture, language, faith, traditions.
What we can build in this region is a network of value- and principle-based own-brand democracies, which are diverse, but united through common historic experiences and inspired by the same values. Such a network would be inherently robust and capable of absorbing shocks and mitigating threats, but it would require proper allocation of resources in order to guarantee the irreversible and sustainable character of its resilience.
A wise approach, layering Kissinger-style pragmatism with democratic idealism and Eastern European tenacity is advisable now – a type of pragmatic resilience that becomes essential when what we see at NATO’s borders reminds us that democracy is not to be taken for granted and the path to modernization and progress is not inevitable. Today we witness military aggressions that we believed were not possible anymore; we see democratic backsliding in countries that we considered irreversibly stable democracies; and we sense the threat of democratic disengagement in old democracies, fractured by internal divisions.
The world is not dominated by a straight competition between models; it has become a “pick & choose” environment where countries opt for various traits they prefer from each model, a type of “soft power coexistence” (Repnikova, 2022).
We have our own “to do list”, Romania still has much to do. We need to increase the rhythm. It includes the need to build self-awareness about our role and identity, as we ourselves have not managed yet to accept the many coexisting facets of our national identity.
We need an increased military capacity, and an increased NATO presence in Romania. Threats remain high here, this close to the “Wall”. If Romania is left on its own, it might defend its chances, but it cannot play a larger role in promoting Western influence in the region.
We must improve public services like education and healthcare. We must strengthen social resilience, fight inequality, and promote inclusive values,as well as local and Western culture. We want to become more relevant as a regional hub in energy production and distribution. We want to increase the rhythm of digitalization.
Western analysts (Mazarr, 2022) have, through ample research, identified a number of national characteristics that throughout history have underpinned national competitive success -- including a strong national ambition, a culture of learning and adaptation, and significant diversity and pluralism. There have been thorough advancements when it comes to opportunities for citizens, institutional efficiency, supporting a pluralist society, but there is an aspect that still needs a lot of progress: assuming a coherent national identity and an ambition for affirmation, as a democratic, European, vibrant society. As I pointed out before, some lack of ambition – or excessive discretion and reserve – has led to the projection of a weak national brand. We need to be bolder in asserting our results and progress, because what we achieved so far, navigating a precarious context while maintaining a balanced and stable domestic environment, is not a question of luck, but the product of strategy, commitment, and firm political decisions. Romania has already built a model of its own, combining historic values (based on a mixture of faiths, populations, attitudes) with the Western democratic idealism. This model needs to be better acknowledged - by us, and by others, as it can foster growth, stability and harmony, and inspire others in their trajectories towards a democratic future.
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