When Stalin broke the Yalta Accords and “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic” an Iron Curtain fell across Europe, the United States assumed responsibility for the fate of a free and democratic Europe. In March 1947, President Harry Truman proclaimed in Congress:
At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
 H. Truman, Address before a joint session of Congress, 12 March 1947.
European security and prosperity demanded American engagement to create a community capable of collective defence, to raise the Old Continent from economic ruin, and to guarantee conditions for development. This conviction led to the Marshall Plan, the institutionalisation of mutual transatlantic defence, the creation of the North Atlantic Alliance, and initiated a process of European integration. Soon, NATO and the European community became institutional emanations of cooperation among the most developed nations of the world.
Truman borrowed the understanding of “free people” from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who, before a joint session of Congress on 26 December 1942 rhetorically asked: “What kind of people do they think we are?” Here, “they” referred to Hitler and Mussolini. By replying to his question, Churchill defined the identity of the Grand Coalition: “we” meant the free nations striving for the liberation of Europe from the bondage of German Nazism and Italian fascism.
Forty years later, President Ronald Reagan spoke before a sitting of both houses of parliament in London and intoned Churchill’s question to define “we” in the context of the Cold War. For him, it meant a community united over the goal of liberating Europe from communism: “Free people, worthy of freedom and determined to not only remain so but to help others gain their freedom as well.” Here, Reagan proclaimed the crusade for freedom— a political strategy going beyond containment of the imperial aspirations of the Soviet Union. It was no longer just about publicly expressing solidarity with the nations to the east of the Iron Curtain (John F. Kennedy, Ich bin ein Berliner speech, 26 June 1963). Reagan mobilised European allies and increased political pressure on the civilisation of enslavement. On the one hand, the U.S. strove to weaken communist regimes and undermine their legitimacy. On the other, they offered to cooperate with the Soviet Union for global security and Europe.
The new period of technological rivalry initiated by Reagan, along with increased political pressure and economic sanctions that cut the USSR off from advanced Western technology, led to a situation in which Soviet communism was able neither to keep pace with the U.S. in technological development nor to offer its own society an alternative to the Western way of life. It was thanks to these politics that the U.S. succeeded in reaching a series of disarmament agreements with the Soviet Union, such as the limitation of strategic weapons (START 1) or the liquidation of intermediate-range rocket arsenals (INF); something that contributed to withdrawing them from Europe also.
Mikhail Gorbachev—as it turned out, the last leader of the Soviet Union—attempted to salvage the authority of the Communist Party and maintain its legitimacy to govern. However, the glasnost and perestroika policies he initiated led to the democratisation of social relations, first in the Soviet Union and, subsequently, with the satellite states. In this way, the communist parties in Central Europe gradually lost an important element that secured their power—the threat of Soviet intervention.
Standing before Reagan’s successor in the White House was the task of setting a new aim around which a pan-European community and their interests could be shaped. And here again, the U.S., just as 40 years earlier, assumed the responsibility for fashioning a new peaceful order and defining the political “we.”
In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson presented to Congress his vision of order intended for Europe after World War I:
Is the present war a struggle for a just and secure peace or only a new balance of power? … Only a tranquil Europe can be a stable Europe. There must be not only a balance, but a community of power, not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace … It must be peace without victory ... [as] only peace between equals can last; only a peace the very principle of which is equality and a common participation in a common benefit.
In proposing an end to the Cold War, George H.W. Bush alluded to this American tradition of contemplating the European order and, in a certain sense, put forward his own vision of “peace without victory.” During his Europe Whole and Free speech, he avoided antagonising the now former Soviet adversaries by inviting them to join in commonly defining the understanding of “we” by creating a community joined in “the vision, concept of free people in North America and Europe working to protect their values.” The road to achieving this goal was through cooperation over the unification of Germany (which led to the 2+4 conference in 1990 and the ultimate reunification of the German Democratic Republic with the Federal Republic of Germany), accepting free, democratic elections as a pan-European systemic standard, and in cooperation in technological advancement and significant restrictions on military potential.
In response to this American vision, Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, announced an end to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which limited the sovereignty of Central European states, and invoked the image of “a common European home.” In his speech before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, he accepted the American offer of “peace without victory.” He ruled out the eruption of armed conflict on the continent and “the very possibility of the use or threat of force, above all military force, by an alliance against another alliance, inside alliances, or wherever it may be.” This vision provided the impetus for harmonising a continent-wide developmental model and, after several years, led to the gradual enlargement of NATO and the European Union. The combined nullification of the Brezhnev Doctrine and denunciation of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact by the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies in December 1989 were important Soviet contributions toward the newly formed European order. A new spectre was haunting Europe—the spectre of the collapse of communism, of peace without victory, without vanquished or victors but with a common triumph over the Cold War division of the continent.
Unintended Consequences of Systemic Transformations
One element of America’s policy toward dismantling the Yalta division of Europe was creating the conditions that would allow communist elites in Central Europe to peacefully relinquish and hand over power to democratic movements. Here too the notion of peace without victory was applied. The U.S. supported the democratic transformations in Central Europe and the new democratic authorities there supported American policies of overcoming the Cold War division of Europe and basing continental security on mutual cooperation. One example is Poland, whose neighbours all changed after the Cold War. To the west emerged a reunited Germany. To the south, the Czech and Slovak Republics replaced Czechoslovakia. To the east, instead of one neighbour—the Soviet Union—Poland shared its borders with four new states: Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. With all its new neighbours Poland signed treaties of friendship and cooperation and became the epicentre of political stability in the new post-Yalta Europe. Through this, Poland also became an important ally to Washington in realizing the vision of Europe whole and free.
New social, political, and economic elites were shaped under American patronage in Central Europe. In essence, these were a synthesis of former communist elites and dissidents. In many instances, the synthesis demanded America’s protection for former communist authorities or members of the communist security apparatus. This was a rather standard element of American politics toward systemic transformations, but for the idea of creating a united, free and democratic Europe, it had a few important negative, unintended consequences.
First, American protection of former communist elites was, in essence, a form of external intervention in the democratisation process. Democracy is a self-regulating system of government. Every form of external interference that favours a certain political side—for example, by guaranteeing political inviolability—always threatens the possibility of the oligarchisation of social relations, limiting democratic controls and, in the long term, social tensions. The repercussion of this sort of American intervention in all Central European states severely delayed the processes of de-communisation and lustration. Without any doubt, the delays negatively impacted the quality of democratic systems in Central Europe.
Second, the American umbrella over the systemic transformations in Central Europe was incorrectly interpreted in Russia as a geopolitical action intended to expand America’s sphere of influence. The misinterpretation stemmed from the old tendency to view the world in geopolitical terms. In turn, this old viewpoint often ignored the actual political aspirations of Central European societies toward integration in transatlantic and European structures. With the exception of Slovakia after 1989, no political power came to office in the other Central European states advocating an alternative to NATO and EU membership. Social aspirations were a major regional political power harmonising with the vision of Europe whole and free, which nevertheless broke with the paradigm of geopolitical rivalry.
During the Cold War, the free world proved the superiority of its development model. Russians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, and the other nations of Central and Eastern Europe who emerged from communism with aspirations of sovereignty did not feel that they had lost. Rather they rejected their developmental aberrations—communism and the Soviet command economy—and regarded this as their own success. In 1990, 90% of Russians correlated “normalcy” with accepting the Western lifestyle and 32% believed that state reformers should imitate the U.S. (32% said the same about imitating Japan). Only 17% named Germany as an example to follow, 11% cited Sweden, and 4% favoured the Chinese example.
The negative experiences associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s systemic transformation under President Boris Yeltsin contributed to a change in social attitudes. Vladimir Putin exploited this situation by transforming the weak, corrupt Russian democracy he inherited into an authoritarian system. In 2005, Putin announced that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Under the influence of this and similar assessments, over half of Russians began negatively evaluating the fall of the USSR and conveying a positive attitude toward totalitarian, Soviet symbols.
Gleb Pavlovsky, one of the ideologues responsible for transforming the Russian political system into an authoritarian one, once proposed the thesis that for Russia, the Cold War ended differently than for the Western world. According to him, Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay best conveyed the mood of the post-1989 era by claiming that after the end of the Cold War came “the end of history.” Liberal democracy was victorious over the communist ideology but, at the same time, the West lost its last ideological opponent. But the Russians did not consider themselves to be defeated. They saw the bankruptcy of communism as the beginning of a new era of nihilism in which no norms applied.
Against this backdrop, social acceptance of the facade of democracy in Russia was born. New Russian elites convinced the society of how further democratisation threatened disintegration and how this process could only be stopped by imperialistic methods, which began re-emerging in foreign and domestic politics. At the same time, it became impossible to collectively create a new pan-European “we” with a Russia headed toward authoritarianism.
Here, it is worthwhile to remember that even during the Gorbachev period, the vision of Europe whole and free did not apply to the territory of the Soviet Union, for no one envisioned the possibility of its disintegration. Gorbachev’s attempts to forcefully contain the Soviet republics’ independence aspirations, for example in Vilnius and Tbilisi, ended in fiasco and contributed to the collapse and later decision to dissolve the Soviet Union.
Geopolitics Strikes Back
The vision of Europe “whole and free” was conditional. Achievement of the idea was based on the assumption that all peoples of the new community, including Russia, would fundamentally obey the norms of international law and political obligations stemming from membership in the UN or OSCE, including the 1990 Paris Charter. This meant, first and foremost, renouncing one-sided use or the threat of force in international relations, respecting the sovereign equality of states, the inviolability of state borders, and refraining from intervening in states’ internal affairs.
Only for a short period of time were Moscow’s elites forced to regard these principles as also applying to the former Soviet republics and their independence aspirations. The reason for this was quite prosaic. In order to speak of an end to the Cold War through the idea of peace without victory, Russia could not feel defeated. A defeat would mean the loss of global power status as well as its legal-international attributes, especially permanent-member status in the UN Security Council. From a formal perspective, the Russian state that emerged after the dissolution of the USSR was a new entity. Whether it would be recognised internationally as the legal successor of the Soviet Union was left to the goodwill of the members of the international community. In order to gain a positive decision, Russia had to accept the existing territorial order.
If in 1991, for example, Russia had announced territorial claims against Ukraine or any of its other neighbours, it would not have been recognized as the USSR’s legal successor and would have lost its place on the UN Security Council. For Russia to assume the rights associated with the USSR in the UN, all remaining members of the UN would have to consent, including Ukraine. All that would be needed was one dissenting vote to prevent Russia from having veto power in the Security Council. It is difficult to imagine Kyiv accepting Russia’s proposal while at the same time being under Russian pressure over territorial claims.
When Russia was recognised as the successor to the USSR, the imperialist tradition of viewing relations with former Soviet republics as internal Russian affairs was revived in Moscow. Consequently, the Western- supported emancipationist aspirations of new states within the post-Soviet space were seen in Russia as a violation of the principle of cooperation based on the Europe whole and free vision. Russia’s political about-face began in September 1993. During his visit to Poland in August of that year, Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared his recognition of Poland’s aspiration for NATO membership as understandable: “in perspective, the decision of sovereign Poland aiming for European integration is not contradictory with the interests of other states, including Russia.”
Three weeks later, Yeltsin issued a letter to the leaders of the United States, France, the UK, and Germany in which he rescinded his Poland position. “In general, we prefer a situation where the relations between our country and NATO are by several degrees warmer than those between the Alliance and Eastern Europe.” Russia proposed also that NATO and Russia jointly extend security guarantees to the countries of the region, instead of them joining NATO. This was a critical moment. Despite Western efforts, Russia rejected the principle of sovereign state equality. At the same time, it also rejected cooperation for European political democratisation in the spirit of the “peace without victory” idea offered in the Europe whole and free vision. Instead Russia, for the first time, demanded a return to the old geopolitical, imperial schemes, reintroducing the Concert of Europe and recognising the inequality of European states.
This is how Krzysztof Skubiszewski, former Polish foreign minister and a leading architect of the post-Cold War European order, read Russia’s intentions. On 4 October 1993, he commented on Russia’s new postulates as such:
Poland’s pursuit to join NATO is part of our policy … It is a policy of linking with Western defence and security organisations, making them to a larger extent European through Poland’s participation, instead of—as thus far—maintaining only their Western character. The division of Europe will be different. This policy corresponds to the most vital interests of Poland, to maintaining its hard-won independence—we will not give up this policy. … Just as we will be opposed to isolating Russia, we equally reject the placement of Poland in a buffer or grey zone between West and East. The idea of Russian guarantees leads to such a zone, one of imminent dependence. There is no mention of them in the Wałęsa-Yeltsin declaration. We already had bad experiences with such guarantees—in the 18th century before the partitions, and in the 20th century in Tehran and Yalta. Our policy is an independence policy within the framework of Euro-Atlantic security.
From then on, Russia has made conscientious attempts to abate the integration processes of European states by demanding differentiated membership status for new members. It demanded that NATO refrain from deploying more serious forces in new member states. It attempted to gain “compensation” from the EU in exchange for eastern expansion. It opposed the pro-European aspiration of elites in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Finally, in order to halt the aspirations of former Soviet republics from gaining the full-fledged community status of a member building Europe whole and free, Russia used military strength against Moldova in 1992, Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014. By these actions, Russia broke fundamental European peace norms agreed upon in the Helsinki Final Act of the CSCE in 1975, the 1990 Paris Charter for the New Europe, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and a whole series of bilateral understandings.
After the aggression against Ukraine in 2014, Putin openly declared
that Russia finds itself in a war with the West. During his remarks at a 2014 conference in Valdai, he blamed the West for forcing upon Russians their values “instead of establishing a new balance of power, essential for maintaining order and stability, they took steps that threw the system into sharp and deep imbalance.”
What Kind of People Do We Think We Are?
Politics based on the vision of Europe whole and free has proved to be one of history’s most effective instruments for spreading freedom and prosperity. Today, the states of Central Europe constitute the fastest-developing part of the continent. As long as Russia will continue to use its strength to contain democracy from expanding and curb freedom on the entire continent, however, European security and prosperity will remain in jeopardy. This is especially true today as Europe finds itself in a more difficult situation than in 1919 or 1989.
American leadership in the free world is not only weaker, it must also compete with autocratic developmental models in Europe—Russia—as well as in Asia. China, the largest autocratic power in the world, is competing with the democratic world not only economically but also ideologically. The West, which transgressed an ideological demobilisation after 1989, made a strategic error by accepting the Chinese developmental “one state, two systems” model as good enough to accept China into the WTO. Meanwhile, one of China’s systems is based on freedom, the other on unfreedom. A synthesis of both systems is not possible since authoritarianism, supported by the power of the state, will always dominate over freedom devoid of such support. In this way, China, by assuming to be a free market economy, gains an advantage over the free world. Moreover, they are exporting their developmental model abroad.
One of the most important lessons from the fall of communism was the empirical experience of millions that showed how democracy and the free market determine successful development and prosperity. By accepting the Chinese “one state, two systems” approach, the West seriously weakened the strength of its lesson. Today, the autocratic developmental model, supported by China and Russia, is becoming more and more popular not only among developing states but also among democratic elites in many countries. To successfully counter this trend, the West must once again reintegrate itself, redefine its political community and the term “we.” Paradoxically, this will be most easily achieved within Europe by utilising the aspirations of societies in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans to actively take part in the Europe whole and free vision. By returning to the road of NATO and EU political enlargement, free nations can regain their identity.
 W. Wilson, “Peace without Victory,” speech, 2 April 1917.
 Address given by Mikhail Gorbachev to the Council of Europe: Europe as a Common Home, Strasbourg, 6 July 1989.
 G. Pavlovsky, Sistiema RF. V voiinie 2014 goda. De Principatu Debili, 2014.
 Joint declaration of Poland and Russia, Warsaw, 25 August 1993.
 6. Letter from Russian President Boris Yeltsin to American President Bill Clinton, 15 September 1993.
 Poland’s Foreign Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski, public statement, 15 October 1993.
 8. V. Putin, speech: “The World Order: New Rules or a Game without Rules,” Valdai, 2014.