“Eastern Europe is experiencing a backlash against liberal democracy,” says Alexander Cooley

October 13, 2016


Columbia University’s Harriman Institute is one of the world’s leading academic institutions devoted to Russian, Eurasian and East European studies.  Harriman Institute director Alexander Cooley recently spoke to Budapest Beacon senior correspondent Benjamin Novak about the rise of right-wing extremism, Russia’s great power ambitions, the multiple crises confronting the EU, the global crack-down on NGOs, and corruption as a global institution.

“What we are seeing in Eastern Europe is a kind of backlash against liberal democracy” and the kinds of “western values, rule sets, global governance, and assumptions that we had of the immediate post-communist era of the 1990s” says Professor Cooley on why we are witnessing the return of autocratic, nationalist governments in eastern Europe, most notably Hungary and Poland.

The international relations expert says what we are see in Poland and Hungary is “a reassertion of the national interest verses a kind of European, Western or liberal type of identity.”

“A big theme in east Europe and around the world is this idea of protecting state sovereignty,” says Cooley, by which he means “being the guardian of state sovereignty and national interest against corrosive foreign influence, external demands to change what you do, and liberal democratic checks and balances.”

The Columbia University professor points out that adherence to certain conditions “across all sorts of spheres” is a condition for joining NATO and the EU.  “Even NATO conditionality is not just about defense but respecting minority rights, having democratic values and institutions” says Cooley, adding that “the assumption is that once you get into the club you have been socialized into these kinds of institutional practices and democratic practices.”  However, he is quick to point out that “the problem is that once you are in the club, there are very few mechanisms for holding you to account” and  “it is very difficult to pressure states to actively change when they are perceived as deviating from the rules and norms.”

The Ukraine crisis

Professor Cooley says says the current era is pivotal because the “United States and Russia are having two very different conversations” about “how the world should be organized and what its operative principles should be.”

“The Russians are talking about international order, how they want to change the rules of the game, and we’re talking about ‘how could you so blatantly break international order'” says Cooley, who believes the Ukraine crisis “has really brought a number of things to a head.”

“In the west, we tend to look at the Ukraine crisis from the perspective of one state meddling in the sovereignty of another in violation of the Budapest memorandum to uphold Ukraine’s territorial integrity” says Cooley.  By contrast, “the Russian perspective is that the Ukraine crisis is about all western encroachment, NATO expansion, not being consulted on Kosovo, allowing NGOs to judge, western dominance of global governance, and western hypocrisy” he says.

Great power politics

Cooley says Russia perceives itself as a great power in a multi-polar system of many great powers, and that part of what gives Russia great power status is “having a sphere of influence in the post Soviet states, regional economic unions, and security blocks like the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation).”

He says Russia’s perception of itself as a great power is critical to understanding Russian foreign policy also what makes Russian foreign policy unpredictable. “Sometimes working with the west is interpreted as enhancing its status and sometimes going against the west is perceived to be doing the same thing, and that is what is so infuriating to western policy makers.  They don’t feel that they have a reliable partner in the Kremlin as it changes and oscillates from crisis to crisis.”

The Harriman Institute director says the other thing Russia would like to do is “renegotiate the global security architecture and global rules of the game.”  He says that what is happening in Syria is not merely about supporting a client regime, but also Russia telling the United States “we have interests, too, and we need to be consulted and treated as equals, and if we are not, we are going to go ahead and take unilateral action because that seems to be the only thing you listen to.”

On the subject of Russia’s interference in European affairs, Cooley says Russia also has interests in east Europe which it is prepared to assert.

Cold war in a globalized world

Cooley lists similarities between the current situation and the early stages of the Cold War:  “The enemy images that each side has of one another are pretty set.  We assign blame exclusively to the other side.  There is a lack of trust.  We think we are not talking the same language.  There is no strategic vision as to where the two sides want to be together in ten years time.”

He says that what is different from the Cold War which took place during the Twentieth Century is that “we are in a much more globalized world now where we have multiple other sorts of contact.  It’s not just government relations. It’s markets, it’s the cultural sphere, it’s the humanitarian sphere, it’s the legal sphere.  Russia might want to increase its sovereignty and autonomy from from certain global forces, but the world is just so much more globalized and so much more networked than it used to be.”

The international affairs expert says that the globalized world of the 21st century makes imposing sanctions and isolating Russia much more difficult than it used to be. “On the other hand, for Moscow, it makes withdrawing from this perceived Western led order also very difficult” says Cooley.

Hungary as broker between East and West

Professor Cooley refers to repeated offers on the part of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to act as a broker between the United States and Russia  as “a classic post Cold War era playbook.”

“You position yourself as a broker of different systems and values.  You say that, in the interest of Hungarian sovereignty, we’re not going to be bound exclusively by these liberal commitments. Sure, we can partner with Russia and China, because we’re going to do what is best for Hungary, and in doing so we are going to minimize external influence on our decision making.”

Cooley says that what Orbán is doing “is being replicated throughout the world” and that “Russia and China are being invoked as these kinds of strategic hedges” against liberal encroachment.

He says that, while this does not automatically make one a great power, it does play well to the domestic audience.

Europe in crisis

The Columbia University professor of international affairs says we are seeing “the aggregation of a lot of existential threats to the European project,” and that “Europe’s defenders are not doing a good enough job defending what European values are and what the European vision should be.”

He says “Brexit was a real wake-up call and a reminder that the forces of populism and nationalism” can overwhelm calls for common markets, common values, and free movements of labor.

He points out that the Greek crisis is “on hold” and has not been resolved.  He says there continues to be fear of a “knock-on effect” in countries like Italy or Spain if Greece is allowed to to fail or leave the EU.

But it is the migrant refugee crisis that has really “cut to the heart of Europe’s ability to act beyond its national interests and create common rule sets for issues which individual governments may not to want to do deal with” says Cooley, who believes disagreement among EU Member States over the best way to handle the crisis is undercutting the notion that “we’re all in this together and need to craft common solutions.”

And then there is the fact that Europe continues to suffer slow growth after the financial shock of 2008-2009 which he says “continues to undermine the economic legitimacy of the project.”

“I think any one of these singularly would be a threat. But you take all of these and you put them together and I think the potential is there for real damage to the European project in the upcoming years” says Cooley.

US interests

Cooley says a stronger, more unified European Union is “overwhelmingly in US interests,” identifying Europe as a “stable and reliable partner that is committed to similar values and rule sets and is involved in similar international institutions and their governance.”  Cooley says that, differences notwithstanding, “in terms of security, economic normative commitment, Europe is a primary partner” and that “a Europe that is weak, that is picked apart, that turns inward” is not in American interests.

Globalism vs. anti-globalism

Cooley says this is the first US presidential election since to WWII to involve “candidates with diverging views on alliance commitments, security and foreign policy.”

“While there have been disagreements about how muscular and robust US foreign policy commitments should be, there has always been a commitment to the liberal international order and to alliance commitments,” says Cooley, who believes that Hillary Clinton’s pro-globalist and Donald Trump’s anti-globalist attitudes constitute a “fundamental contour in differences in the foreign policy orientation of the two candidates.”

“Donald Trump is a variant on this populist, anti-global backlash.  He’s anti-trade, anti-immigration, anti-being bound by other peoples values and norms, and also he’s for this idea of pragmatic deal making” says Cooley, noting that Trump’s pro-Russian stance has really “scared a number of allies in Europe and Asia within the east Asian bilateral alliance network.”

By contrast, Clinton’s formative years “first as First Lady, then as Secretary of State” has been in “this liberal international dynamic where she has worked with allies and sees value in internationalism, in free trade, in expansion  of global governance, and a more robust role for the US overseas.”

“Much to the dismay of a lot of foreign policy officials, the sort of popular bedrock of America’s security commitments and alliance outlook is not as deep as perhaps we thought it was” says Cooley, who maintains that the Trump candidacy has exposed that while a majority of Americans still support trade and alliance commitments, “it is not a huge majority.”

“When you connect the anti-immigrant story with trade with America’s role in the world into one big, anti-globalist outlook, this gives a kind of coherence to the mish-mash of views coming from Trump” observes the Columbia professor of international relations.  However, he notes that “this idea of being anti-global, of putting America first, of being pragmatic in doing deals is also something that is being criticized by former Republicans in the foreign policy establishment” and that “the national security sector “is especially concerned.”

“This idea that somehow America is not going to be bound by its alliance commitments, or even that America is going to turn itself into some kind of mafia-state protection racket is dangerous because alliance politics is not only about transactions.  It’s about building trust, common common community, common principles, and envisioning yourself as part of a broader kind of order,” says Cooley.

“There is a real danger of this unraveling,” he adds.

A wake-up call

Cooley says one of the things driving the rise of populism and right-wing extremism is a more fundamental anti-globalist perspective and “wanting to be much more transgressive about things that were assumed were accepted regarding citizenship, mobility of people, work rules.”

“For the longest time, political scientists said that the western party system was ‘cartelized,’ that both the center-left and the center-right essentially agreed on common principles and rules and disagreed on marginal types of issues, and that elections weren’t really contested about big order politics” he says, calling the rise of populism and nationalism in European and American politics  “a real wake-up call.”

A right-wing extreme international

What various populist, nationalist, right-wing movements essentially have in common says Cooley is the notion of wanting to fundamentally redo the social contract, the rules of the game, and not accepting anymore things that used to be just assumed.

“What you see is a kind of a right-wing extreme international where they each monitor, congratulate each other, keep note of their successes, and support each other” says the Columbia professor, who finds it interesting that French right-wing politician Marie Le Pen would be a vocal supporter of Brexit or Trump’s anti-globalist stance.

“This is a category of actors that is combining concerns about the economic effects and dislocations of free trade and free capital movement, a kind of worker sensibility with this emphasis on sovereignty, security and nationalism” says Cooley.

Civil Society

Cooley says the past ten years has seen a growing “crackdown on civil society globally,” including restrictions against foreign funding as well as one the NGOs themselves.

“The most extreme of these laws are in Russia where you have the foreign agents law, where NGOs that take foreign funds have to self identify as foreign agents, thereby stigmatizing their activities, and the new undesirable organizations law, which criminalizes their activities and association with them” says Cooley.

According to Cooley the reason for his is simple:

“Populist rulers around the world have seen there isn’t a lot of backlash to cracking down on NGO activity, and that they haven’t really been reprimanded for it.”  He says that a lot of laws targeting civil society “play into this populist politics, this idea that foreign NGOs are a subversive external force that are going to destabilize politics.”

With regard to the US initiative announced in 2014 to support civil society, from a practical point of view the is not much the United States can do, says Cooley, adding that “It’s already late in the game.”

Corruption as a global phenomenon

Cooley says that is perceived as an increase in global corruption may, in fact, be an increase in the amount of information on the subject.

He says “we used to think of corruption that happened within countries, like an official taking a bribe.”  However, after the release of the Panama papers, “which revealed the industrial scale of  the production off-shore vehicles not only for tax avoidance and optimization but also money laundering,” Cooley says “we are starting to understand corruption as a global phenomenon that has lots of related transnational actors and lots of components” and that “a lot of these areas that we see as legitimate business practices are actually contributing to this global corruption network and grand kleptocracy.”

“The east European official takes the bribe.  He still needs an off-shore vehicle to get the money out, and ultimately needs a destination bank account with requires the help of a professional.  He or she may acquire real estate in a place like London, Paris, or Manhattan with a real estate broker” explains Cooley.

Although we’re starting to see some pushback like a pilot initiative this year from the US treasury on registering the beneficial owners of anyone who buys luxury real state, Cooley says “some of these very high profile east European cases have really turned the spotlight back to us and our own institutions and lax practices and told us we also need to do more.”