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Interview With Historian Tony Judt: 'Dreaming About Washington Is One Of East Europe's Great Mistakes'


Historian Tony Judt says "Washington is not about to run to [East Europe's] rescue against Russia."
Historian Tony Judt says "Washington is not about to run to [East Europe's] rescue against Russia."

Editor’s note:
European historian Tony Judt died on August 6 at his home in New York. He was 62. Judt spent a lifetime studying and writing about the course of American foreign policy, the future of the EU, and Russia's relations with Europe -- all issues that continue to dominate the headlines.

Judt was the director of the Erich Maria Remarque Institute at New York University and the author of "
Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945," "Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century," and "A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe," to name just a few. In October 2009, Judt sat down with RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher for a wide-ranging interview about the strength of the European Union, Russia's ambitions, and what Central and Eastern Europe should expect from Washington.

RFE/RL: Professor Judt, a little over a decade ago, you wrote about the European community and asked whether the idea was a "grand illusion." Since then, you have also said that the European Union faces a dismal future because it sprang from overlapping national interests rather than a collective desire for unity. Is Europe still more focused on what divides it rather than what unites it? Is the "European project" a myth?

Tony Judt: It's easiest if one begins by remembering that it ought to be a huge paradox that the European Union -- the world's most successful transnational institutional arrangement -- grew out of the circumstances of the worst-ever European war, the Second World War.

It's not a paradox when you remember that the members of what became the EU -- before that, the European Community, before that, the European Economic Community -- were precisely those European states which, among those which had suffered worse, were still free. Obviously, those [states] which suffered the worst in the Second World War in Europe were the states that ended up under the Soviet Union; East Central Europe had a much worse war than West Europe -- more people killed, more damage, more destruction, more collapse of structures, etcetera.

But the countries that joined the European coal and steel community in '51 -- which became the Economic Community in '57-58 -- were also all countries which had either been defeated -- Germany and Italy -- or occupied -- France, Luxembourg, Belgium, [and] Holland. It did not include countries which had not been occupied -- like Britain -- or which had remained independent or neutral -- Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Scandinavia, or Sweden at any rate. And it's relevant, I think, to know this.

These were countries which, in different ways, could only recover by collaborating with each other. They were no longer either politically strong enough -- like West Germany -- or economically viable enough -- [like] Italy [and] the Netherlands at the time -- to recover alone. Or, like France, they had experienced humiliating defeat, occupation, and were beginning to experience a loss of empire -- a violent loss of empire.

And so what happened was that this sort of slow realization that took, in the French case, six years -- from the end of the Second World War to the beginning of the '50s -- the slow realization that the only path out of defeat, poverty, a return to the interwar circumstances of depression and political extremism was by one form or another of international cooperation. So it was not driven by a European ideal of "never again, war," or French and German reconciliation, and so on -- though there were of course people who talked about that. It was driven by, if you like, the logic of self interest.

RFE/RL: When the Czech Republic held the rotating EU Presidency earlier this year, it thumbed its nose quite strongly at the idea of a unified Europe, and it's not alone in its disdain.

Judt: Right, and indeed: the Czechs and the Poles today -- both presidents -- are waiting and hoping for the Irish to defeat the Lisbon Treaty [in the October 2 referendum] because [then] they'll have that as an excuse to say, "Right, we won't ratify, we won't even bring it to our parliaments -- it's defeated, it's dead, it's finished."
Certainly if I were running Russian foreign policy, I would look at Europe and see countries waiting to be picked off, one by one.

The background to this, of course -- and it's important -- is that all of the great successes of the European Union and its predecessors were institutional, not political. Europe was constructed institutionally; there were no votes, there were no plebiscites, no referendums. The first European Parliament election was in 1979, over 20 years after the coming of the European Economic Community. This was inevitable, and it was probably a good thing.

If you had asked the European peoples in the early 1950s, or even as late as the '60s -- and I could certainly confirm this firsthand, from personally memory -- if you had asked the French or the Germans or the Brits or the Italians, not to mention, say, the Danes or the Austrians, "Would you like to have a European Union in which you reduce your local powers, give all the power to Brussels, in return for centralized administrative and institutional structures?" You would have had a resounding negative vote. In almost every country. Maybe Luxembourg would have voted yes.

It had to be built institutionally. And it was very successfully built. Legal structures, trading structures, financial structures, for tariffs and so on. You couldn't put this to a vote in countries which had just experienced two vicious wars -- two destructive wars -- in one generation. It would have been politically impossible. The extreme left and extreme right would have opposed it, [and] the center never would have been able to support it alone.

But therefore we face a paradox today: that this magnificent structure of transnational legal institutions, transnational economic institutions, rules of law, regulations, which bind at least the European elite, if not European peoples -- which by the way is the envy of regional organizations and aspirants, I know from traveling there, in Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia -- this European achievement because it's uniquely institutional, lacks political legitimacy, it lacks deep roots in almost any of the member countries. Once you get past the sort of medieval-style traveling clerisy, people like us who think of themselves as Europeans, speak the common European language, English, and are just as at home in Brussels or Prague or Paris or London, as we might be in Berlin or Vienna or whatever -- the question is now and for 20 years has been, "How do you turn this into a political union that people identify with?"

Czech President Vaclav Klaus: blaming Brussels?
The problem, by the way, is not the people, it's the politicians. The problem is politicians because for any given politician in Europe -- whether it's [Vaclav] Klaus in Prague, [Nicholas] Sarkozy in Paris, [Gordon] Brown in England, anyone anywhere -- the easiest way to respond to an economic problem or an international difficulty when your country is at odds with other European countries on policy is to blame Brussels, because it's a cost-free exercise. That's why treaties are being rejected, or come close to rejection [in places like] France, Ireland, the Netherlands, and other European countries. Because local politicians, essentially fighting on local issues, have used the European fall guy, so to speak, as the target for their attacks, so as to gain local popularity, on issues that have local resonance: immigration laws, the presence of foreigners, taxation rules, Brussels forcing us to do this, Brussels forcing us to do that, and no mainstream politicians -- other than in the '70s and '80s: [France's Valery Giscard d'Estaing], [Germany's Helmut] Schmidt, [France's Francois] Mitterrand, [Germany's Helmut] Kohl to some extent -- has devoted political capital to defending Europe against national criticisms. Without that, it has no chance.

RFE/RL: The last few winters in Europe have seen the same movie playing out: Russia holds one or more countries hostage over gas and or oil supplies. These countries aren't operating from a position of strength, let alone unity, and they're vulnerable to Russia picking them off. On issues as critical as energy security, can Europe unify and consolidate its political power?

Judt: Well, there are three different issues involved here. The first is, if you like, the old East-West issue. The shadow of the first 50 years after World War II still hangs over the last 20 years. That is, the sensibilities of Europe's eastern states -- Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and so on, not to speak of the neighbors further east , like Ukraine or Belarus, and so on, Georgia -- are very different toward Russia from those of Western Europe.

Western Europeans, despite the Cold War -- to some extent because of it -- are much less worried about Russia, think much less of Russia as a threat, see it as much less of a problem, than Russia's former colonies or neighbors, and that's crucial. It's very hard for your Polish or Ukrainian listeners to understand because it seems bizarre and absurd. But it's true.

And it's above all true for Germany. Most Germans, particular West Germans, look upon Russia as a natural, implicit colleague in any collaboration for European stability. This is an old story; it goes back to the 1880s and 1890s. You have two large, well-established historic powers -- economic powers, strategic powers, German-speaking Central Europe and Russia, on Europe's eastern fringes, and in between that you have lots and lots of territories and lands and peoples, and languages and religions and ethnic groups, which both [Russia and Germany] have historically regarded as colonial territory. And that colonial territory is no longer thought of that way. But some of the attitudes -- historical attitudes -- remain. So the first thing to recall is that when the English or the Germans, or as it might be, the Spanish, and certainly the French, think about Russia, they think of it as a country ‘to deal with' on more or less equal terms. But not as a threat....

The second observation -- there is a paradox here -- is that it's going to get worse, not better. The European Union's refusal to work with Turkey on a serious strategy and timetable for admission is catastrophic for Europe's attitude towards Russia, because the growing alienation of Turkey serves Russian interests.

Obviously, one only has to look at a map, not to mention a map of oil resources. By refusing to imagine Turkey as a strategic partner, the French and the Germans especially, are pushing Turkey toward Russia. I remember being struck by this at meeting in Istanbul that I went to some years ago, the instinctive response of Turks rebuffed by Europe is to say, "Very well. Our strategic alternative is, so to speak, a Central Asian power alliance with Russia, because to whom else should we look? We Turks are linguistically, historically, ethnically and economically the potential power in Central Asia. If we're not wanted in Europe, we have to look to Central Asia. And in Central Asia, our strategic partner is Russia."

Opening a gas pipeline between North and South Ossetia in August 2009, a year after Russian troops moved in to back separatist forces against Georgia
So what we have done, we West Europeans, is to simultaneously say: "We want Turkey to provide us with pipelines and oil supplies coming out of the Crimea or whatever it might be. But at the same time we don't want Turks in Europe because they're not really Europeans, there are too many of them, they're too poor, they're too Muslim, etc." This plays very badly in Turkey.

And the Russians know it perfectly well. So the Russians are in a position to exercise what you might call "gas blackmail" -- and to a lesser extent oil blackmail -- because they know that in the long run they may well have Turks on their side rather against them. If they knew that Turkey was absolutely solidly integrated into Europe, as a strategic partner, then they would have to be much more open to European negotiations, because Russia needs Turkey as its route for the gas pipelines. But if Turkey is an uncertain territory, Russia has more cards in its hands....

The other thing, I suppose that has to be borne in mind -- this is my third point -- is that the utter inability of the European Union to forge a foreign policy of its own -- whether toward the Middle East or its attitude toward Afghanistan, toward, before Obama was elected, George Bush's policies, its attitude on Africa, its attitude on immigration, all of these things mean that -- certainly if I were running, God help me, Russian foreign policy, I would look at Europe and see countries waiting to be picked off, one by one.

There is no European foreign policy and therefore there is no united European position. That is why [Czech President] Vaclav Klaus is not only remarkably absurd in many of his stances, but utterly self-defeating because his desire -- together with [Polish President Lech] Kaczynski's desire -- to destroy the Lisbon Treaty [and] to destroy the possibility of some sort of united European political structure that could provide a foreign policy executive will in the end only benefit Russia. To some extent locally, it benefits [countries] like Israel, because there is a division on attitudes towards the Middle East; but the real beneficiary is Russia.

RFE/RL: As a historian you study the past and you see the mistakes that we're bound to repeat if we don't learn certain lessons. From that perspective, and given the mistakes you say Europe is now making, what do you see happening down the line in terms of Russia's expansionist ambitions -- be they territorial, economic, or political?

Judt: I think in the very long perspective -- which is always the easiest to take but the least interesting because in the long run, of course, we could all say anything and something will be true -- but in the very long perspective, I would say that it's clear that Russia is going to seek some sort of compensatory advance to overcome the humiliation of its recent decline.

Don't forget that as seen from a historian's perspective, a historian of contemporary Europe, Stalin was in many ways the natural successor to Catherine the Great, and the tsars of the 19th Century, expanding into the Russian near west, and to the Russian southwest in particular -- territories that Catherine began her expansion into, which have always been regarded as crucial by Russian strategists, both because of access to resources, access to warm water ports, and because it gives Russia a role in Europe, as well as in Asia.

For Russia to have a role in Asia is easy. It's obvious that Russia will remain the dominant local great power in the whole region, stretching from southwest China to the Turkish border.

But for Russia to have a role in Europe, which historically mattered much more to its rulers, it has to have some influence along its western frontiers, a region that as a Russian historian once explained to me, "Eto Nashe -- this area is ours." By which he meant, the borderlands area: The Baltic, the Crimea, eastern Ukraine, Belarus, and those areas of what we think of as core Europe, which are culturally, or religiously, or historically, under Russian influence, the far eastern reaches of Poland, of Slovakia, and northern Romania, and so on. So the question is not, "Will Russia seek influence in these regions?" but, "How?"

Historically it was done either by absorbing [countries] into its empire -- and this was, after all, right up, I suppose you might say, till 1945 -- or by extending its political influence beyond its borders in ways that no one else could or wanted to counter. That's really what it did in the final six years that followed World War II, by reproducing the Soviet model of government, not necessarily dominating it militarily or economically, but just reproducing the Soviet model of government all across the Soviet zone of Europe. It's now lost that and we in the West, I think, are very bad at grasping the scale of that loss.

I think we're beginning to see what it means with Putin and Medvedev's efforts to rewrite history, to reestablish so to speak an official account, of Soviet and Russian military action, political action, in the 20th century, which doesn't whitewash Stalin so much as it integrate him into a greater Russian story.

Judt: A colleague of mine in England, a young colleague of mine, Catherine Merridale, wrote a book about Russian soldiers' attitudes toward the Great Patriotic War. She was struck by how much the older generation of Russians, essentially meaning anyone over 55, despite and to some extent because of Stalin's crimes, regard the Stalin period, particularly the war, as the greatest era of pride, achievement, glory, self-confidence, in their lifetime.

What has been lost since is territory, status, a history that they could live with --- everything has been unraveled before their eyes. If this had happened in Americans, or Brits, it would have been culturally catastrophic; to lose the equivalent of, say Texas and California, to be told that all the founding fathers right down to FDR were a bunch of criminals, to discover that you are regarded as on the par with Hitler, in terms of the accepted description of 20th-century evils that we have since overcome.

This was bound to provoke a backlash. And our failure to understand the backlash is simply regarded by Russians as further evidence that there is no reason, there's no possibility of expecting a sympathetic ear in the West.
It's terribly important to understand... that there are very well-informed and intelligent people in Washington who regard the voices of the Cassandras of Eastern Europe as, to put it mildly, self-interested, [and] who regard them as the kind of people who were taken too seriously sometimes by the Bush administration, and indeed in earlier days by other administrations, all the way back to Reagan.

So we're going to face a long period of backlash and imperial comeback in one form or another, from Russia, and we should not be surprised at this. We should not be surprised that everything that [Vladimir] Putin or [Dmitry] Medvedev does that we find abhorrent -- whether it's to do with censorship, the restrictions on the press, rewriting history, rehabilitating Stalin, re-describing the Soviet empire in more positive terms, rejecting Western, or Polish as it might be, criticisms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and so on, all of those things which, to the West, look self-evident -- look to Russians simply as a reminder of the ways in which no one understands them.

RFE/RL: A group of leading thinkers and former leaders from Eastern and Central Europe sent President [Barack] Obama a very public letter a couple of months ago urging him to renew the U.S. relationship with the region. They spoke of a "nervousness in their capitals" and in effect, said, "The Russian bear is growling and hungry and looking at us." The White House has had no response of record, but what it has done is pronounce the "reset button on Russian relations" pushed and we see that things between Moscow and Washington are on a smoother track than before. Going forward, how do you see Obama reconciling the desire of Central /Eastern Europe to feel secure about Russia and important to the United States with the need to keep Russia as a partner on issues like Iran and the war in Afghanistan?

Judt: The first thing to remember -- and this will not go down very well in [Radio Free Europe's] region but it's terribly important to understand it -- is that there are very well-informed and intelligent people in Washington who regard the voices of the Cassandras of Eastern Europe -- as it were, from Poland to Georgia -- as, to put it mildly, self interested, [and] who regard them as the kind of people who were taken too seriously sometimes by the Bush administration, and indeed in earlier days by other administrations, all the way back to Reagan.

[They feel] that, however much you cared for liberty, democracy, freedom, etc., you need to remember that this is a world of realist political choices and you can't conduct your foreign policy toward Russia on the basis of Polish attitudes or, indeed, Georgian attitudes, particularly when the recent Polish government -- not the present but the previous one -- and the present Georgian one, are not perhaps the squeakiest, cleanest governments, on all kinds of issues. So it's not an easy case.

I think the other thing to remember is that a lot of people feel that big mistakes were made by the Bush administration and while we all believe in human rights, etc., Russia is a great power in areas that matter to us. Russia borders on Iran, Russia borders on Turkey -- well, not literally, but across the seas -- Russia borders, much more importantly, on all the former Soviet states going right past Afghanistan and up to the Chinese border, which are most volatile, most likely to matter to the United States on issues of terrorism, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, etc., etc., so we can't conduct foreign policy towards Moscow based on Warsaw's memories of empire.

So I don't think we should expect a big, sensitive response to Central and East European intellectuals or policy experts' advice on these matters. We are, in some ways, making allowances for the obvious changes. Going back to the 50s, however nice the United States is to East Europeans or small countries east of Crimea into the Caucasus -- however nice we are to them -- we have no intention of sending an army to rescue them. You saw that in Georgia, remember Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968. Illusions that America is primarily interested in protecting Moldova, as it were, are simply illusions.

RFE/RL: What, then, should people in Eastern Europe know about the United States' position toward them and their region?

Judt: This is not an area of great interest to the United States, whereas Russia is a great power, which could be useful to the United States, or a great nuisance to the United State. Either way, we will deal with Moscow. And listening to Warsaw is something we shall only do for the purpose of politeness. I do feel that it's important to say this, which is so obvious to me when I go to Washington, and it's a reason why the East Europeans will do much better to invest in a stronger EU, because only a strong EU -- because it's on Russia's borders -- will be forced to think about what it means to deal with Russia, territorially.

Remember, when Americans think about Russia -- just as when Americans think about the Middle East -- they think about "over there." It's a long way away; it's a foreign policy problem.

When Europeans think about Russia, or the Middle East, it's right next door. It's not a foreign policy problem, it's a domestic problem. Islam, immigrants, gas, memories of empire, it's all right next door.

This matters to Europe in a quite different way. Dreaming about Washington is one of East Europe's great mistakes. And they would be advised not to indulge it. Washington is not about to run to their rescue against Russia.