Nation-states are built on ethnic and territorial unity, and their histories and political development are grounded in a sense of collective identity. Empires emerge when a national group considers its existence inside its territorial borders either risky or ineffective, and embarks on a forced expansion that is usually connected with large-scale violence.
Western Europe found another route for its development only after WWII, when Hitlerism lay in the past but Stalinism posed a very present danger. Western European intellectuals realized that both nationalism and imperialism were unacceptable approaches to state-building, and that European stability required a union of nations that could and should expand, but that would never be transformed into an empire.
Western Europe’s political elite was quick to adopt this position, and America’s “Euro-Atlantic” political thinking, together with the Marshall Plan, contributed to it decisively. The Treaty of Rome, together with the establishment of the Council of Europe, embodied a legal, economic, and political – but mostly a philosophical – breakthrough.
A fundamental change occurred in Europe when the failure of Soviet communism opened up entirely new opportunities. But it is impossible to escape the feeling that Western Europeans and the Americans were eager to exchange their strategic Cold War perspective for one focused narrowly on trade and commerce. Those who were ready to consider cooperation with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union in 1990 – the same year that the Charter of Paris aimed to establish a “Europe from Vancouver to Vladivostok” – had by 1992 begun to neglect Russia and the other former Soviet republics, with the exception of the Baltic states. Instead, the West chose to pursue only a tactical relationship with Russia’s post-Soviet bureaucracy.
Western leaders lacked the nerve to engage with the Russian people in a spirit of full cooperation, and at the same time openly to condemn the new Russian state’s human rights violations. The West overlooked authoritarian tendencies as long as Russia’s problems were not exported.
Many influential experts simply inverted the economic determinism that characterized the most primitive Marxists, and assumed that at some point European-style politics would develop spontaneously in Russia as a result of the implementation of free-market ideas. For the Soviet people, however, Europe and the West were characterized by their respect for the individual, intellectual freedom, and the dignity of human life; the ability to conduct business was secondary. The USSR collapsed not for economic reasons, but because the slight lifting of the Iron Curtain revealed a reality that stood in stark contrast to the idea that people were subordinate to the state.
The European Union’s enlargement after 2004 marked the beginning of a fresh chapter in European history, but it did not illustrate a new pan-European strategy or a renewed sense of integration. For the first time since its founding in 1957, the EU was forced to consider how far Europe’s borders extend in terms of politics, economics, and culture.
To be sure, Russia has always been historically separate from the Western European tradition and from the nation-state civilization that emerged after the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. However, this division was far from absolute, and in the nineteenth century, Western Europe, Central Europe, and Russia were closely linked as a united cultural and economic space, which grew and developed despite religious diversity and political upheavals. Fedor Dostoyevsky noted that Russia needed Europe, and that Europe was the second Russian fatherland. But everything changed after the WWI and the Bolshevik revolution.
The relationship between the EU and Russia today is fully pragmatic, based on Realpolitik and trade, which in turn eclipses the strategic perspective. But oil, gas, and metals are not the best way to build bridges between people. The sort of bridges we need require very different materials.
Both Russian and Western European isolationists favor much the same harmful approach. Accustomed to authoritarianism and burdened by post-totalitarian complexes, the majority of Russians are nonetheless neither isolationist nor anti-Western. But passive isolationism, characterized by the idea that everything outside Russia is somehow abstract, is an integral part of the Russian mindset. This type of thinking creates very great dangers for Russia, and is just as dangerous for its immediate neighbors and for the West.
Human rights, openness, and democratic values should be genuinely shared as a means to achieve a true partnership. In the modern milieu of government and corporate bureaucracies, it is difficult to speak in these terms. However, strategically, there is no way to avoid or sugarcoat the serious language that must be used in a dialogue between partners. There is still hope that Europe’s political future will not be one of risky “multipolarity,” but instead one of cooperation based on the shared values of freedom and justice.