Ten Thoughts on the New Europe

The root cause of the epochal changes in Europe is the decline of the Russian empire. This decline will not stop neatly at the historically arbitrary frontiers of the Soviet Union. As the non-Russian peoples of the Baltic states, the Caucasus, and Central Asia are already telling us, these frontiers only mark the line between external and internal empire. There may be good tactical reasons for Western leaders to be cautious in their support for the Baltic republics’ declarations of independence at this particular moment; but it would be quite wrong for those leaders to base planning for Europe 2000 on the continued existence of the Soviet Union as a single unit. Morally wrong, but also analytically wrong. If history is any guide, the decline of empires does not stop halfway. Of course a peaceful, harmonious transition of the USSR to a democratic federation, confederation, or merely commonwealth would be preferable to a conflict-ridden, halting, sometimes violent disintegration. But the latter is more probable.

There are many worse alternatives to Mr. Gorbachev in Russian politics. But there are also better alternatives, for example in the new, non-Communist political movements and parties which broadly embrace the principles of liberal democracy, the social market economy, and the rule of law. At the moment, the worse alternatives seem more likely to gain the upper hand than the better. Gorbachev is therefore a lesser evil. But what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 should be a warning to those who would have us deny our own principles and beliefs in the name of “realism.” The impossible happened.

At the end of the eighteenth century Immanuel Kant suggested that the only states which would not necessarily go to war with each other, sooner or later, were those in which the “civic constitution” was “republican”: that is, with limited government, the rule of law, and kings who listened to philosophers like him. The insight remains fundamental. In twentieth-century terms liberal democracies don’t fight liberal democracies. As a writer, Václav Havel restated Kant’s principle for his own country, and as president he now exemplifies it. The change in the external behavior of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary follows directly from their internal transformation. That change is therefore different in character from—and less easily reversible than—the change in Soviet external conduct. The only fundamental long-term guarantee of the change in Russian foreign policy would be the internal transformation of the Russian state and empire. In principle, our hope must be a liberal, democratic Russia.

Fortunately, that is not our only hope. At the end of the twentieth century there is another reason for states to avoid wars, one undreamed of in Kant’s philosophy. This is that they have the power to wipe each other out. The development of military technology first allowed what Raymond Aron called the “eternal rivalry of states” to wreak untold carnage in “the century of infernal machines.” But its further development then put a matchless check to that rivalry. Since 1945 we have had wars…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.