As Cuba Thaws, is the Cold War Back in Europe?

Jim Rosapepe (Ambassador to Romania, 1998-2001)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Rosapepe’s December 22, 2014 article in the Diplomatic Courier.

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Twenty-five years to the month after Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed, President Obama announced normalization of relations with Communist Cuba. Ceausescu’s Christmas Day execution, less than two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was the final major domino in the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the raising of the Iron Curtain from the Baltics to the Black Sea.

For Americans, not to mention eastern Europeans, the sudden change in 1989 was astonishing, and welcome. Not so for a 37-year-old KGB agent in East Germany, Vladimir Putin. If America had “won” the Cold War, as President George H.W. Bush said repeatedly, to Putin and Russians like him, Russia had lost.

They didn’t forgive—and they didn’t forget.

For him and for us, the 25th anniversary of the end of the Cold War has been the year Russia invaded Ukraine.

Americans wonder: is the Cold War back in Europe while it thaws in the Western Hemisphere?

The answer is no. Not even close.

In fact, the period we call “post-Communist” itself is largely over.

Communism and the Cold War were much more than a force in a big power rivalry, though in the post-World War II years, Soviet Communism was certainly that. In the 20th Century, Communism was a movement, an ideology, a cause, and an inspiration for elites from Vietnam and China to Italy, the Congo, and Cuba.

Today, Communism is virtually dead. In China, it’s a brand. In France, it’s history.

The closest analogy in today’s world is Islamic fundamentalism—an inspiration to some young people from the Middle East to Europe and America to join the fight for its version of a better world.

No one is moving to Moscow these days to join the Communist revolution. No one, outside of Putin’s retainers, would say, “I have seen the future—and it’s in Russia.” Even Edward Snowden is in Russia for asylum, not aspiration.

The Cold War, which was a clash of ideologies as well as superpowers, is over. And democracy and capitalism won. Communism lost.

But nationalism is alive and well. China is Chinese. India is Indian. America is American. And Russia is Russian.

Ukraine? Yes, it’s more complicated. But it’s complicated by ethnic identity and economic interests, not ideology.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Warsaw Pact, the conflict between America and Russia is real. But it’s not about Communism. It’s about national identity and regional influence. It’s about Henry Kissinger’s theories of power politics, not Marx’s vision of utopia on earth.

And in Central and Eastern European countries, it’s much more about their centuries of national history than their less-than-fifty years of Communism.

Today, in Berlin, you can’t find the location of the Berlin Wall without a guide book; the line which divided Europe has been erased. East Germany is now a region like the American south, different but not secessionist or revolutionary.

And in Romania, for example, its strengths—cultural tolerance, warmth, strong military and religious institutions, respect for culture and education—are the same as they were before Communism. And so are its weaknesses—corruption and a stereotypically Latin attitude toward deadlines. But its economy is now overwhelmingly private, elections are competitive, and its borders are so open that millions of Romanians travel, study, and work outside the country.

Secret police “files” are still the stuff of defamation and some middle-aged and older people still view each other as “former Communist” or “anti-Communist.” But today most Romanians are just Romanian. As in many other countries, Communism is about history, not about their lives. Their future is about “Europe”—which, in Romania and its neighbors, means peace and prosperity.

To many Americans, Europe is a pleasant vacation destination and a place which lacks the dynamism of the U.S. To most Central and Eastern Europeans, it’s what they want their homelands to be.

In 2014, with almost all Central and Eastern European nations in the European Union (and NATO), they are in “Europe.”

They still fear Russia. But, for them, the post-Communist transition and the Cold War are over.

Jim Rosapepe, U.S. Ambassador to Romania from 1998-2001, and Sheilah Kast, ABC News Correspondent from 1981-97 who covered the breakup of the Soviet Union, are co authors of Dracula Is Dead: Travels on Post-Communist Romania.

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