Oppose the plans to strengthen US hegemony in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)
By Dennis Barton and Paul Taylor
At the NATO summit in Madrid, the centrepiece of the discussions will be the draft NATO 2030 Strategy Concept. The document claims to be a defence of the so-called C21st rules-based international order. In reality, the NATO 2030 strategy is a blueprint for a US-dominated, unipolar world to be achieved by any means necessary, up to and including first-strike nuclear attacks on China and Russia. Adopting this strategy will have particularly negative consequences for the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, which form the so-called ‘eastern flank’ of NATO’s attempt to build up its military power, including the siting of nuclear missiles a few minutes from Moscow.
US global supremacy
The United States subordinates the growth and influence of other countries to its own needs. Allies are welcome, but only on US terms. The goal of a US-dominated, unipolar world – a global Monroe Doctrine – has been the guiding star of US international policy since the end of the First World War. Although the details and tactics of the strategy continue to be argued over in Washington and the foreign policy think-tanks, the essential aims remain the same.
From Woodrow Wilson to Joe Biden, US global supremacy has been depicted as benign – a latter-day ‘white man’s burden’ with the United States prepared for the world ‘to pay any price’ to advance its capitalist conception of freedom and democracy.
However, following decades of US-inspired sanctions, coups, lawfare and warfare, the global majority has an alternative tale to the myth of US beneficence. For example, countries representing the vast majority of the world’s population have not supported the sanctions imposed on Russia by the US. However, faced with such a lack of world support, the US continues to hold the world hostage in pursuit of its goal of a US-dominated unipolar world.
The US is now a bigger threat to the world than ever before. It has decided that increasing its military power is the best way to prevent its relative economic decline. It is massively raising its military expenditure, expanding its global reach in every continent, and seeking the military capacity to launch first-strike nuclear attacks to preserve its global hegemony.
A subordinated Europe
The subordination of Europe to the US is a central goal of US policy. Since 1949, NATO has been an indispensable instrument in asserting US influence over the continent. All wings of the US foreign policy establishment have agreed that the fate of Europe was critical to the projection of global US power. Its post-1945 policy in Europe is summed up by the phrase ‘Keep Russia out, and Germany down.’
The US has opposed attempts at European unity, which did not accept its subordination to the US. To bolster its credentials as a defender of Europe, the US has used its immense weight to impede efforts to create pan-European security and cooperation during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and later with Russia after 1991. The expansion of NATO has stoked the fires of conflict rather than overcoming historical enmities and fears. From Yugoslavia to Ukraine, the US has profited from conflict and extended its influence, whilst people in Europe pay the price in massive loss of life and economic damage.
The Madrid Summit will see further calls from the US for its European allies to oppose peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, in tandem with attacks on the so-called appeasement of Germany, France, Italy and others. The summit will also see further US demands for Europe to increase its military spending and for the consolidation of more NATO bases across Central and Eastern Europe.
Donald Rumsfeld, in 2003, revealed the contempt the US has for Europe as an independent actor following the refusal of France and Germany to support the US war of aggression against Iraq: “You’re thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don’t. I think that’s ‘old Europe.’ If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east. And there are a lot of new members. And if you just take the list of all the members of NATO and all of those who have been invited in recently — what is it, 26, something like that? [But] you’re right. Germany has been a problem, and France has been a problem.” Rumsfeld continued, “You look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe. They’re not with France and Germany [regarding Iraq], they’re with the United States.”
Rumsfeld’s comments are not an anomaly. The US regularly abuses its unique weight to deepen divisions in Europe and convince Central and Eastern Europe that its security is best served by taking on the role of the US eastern flank in its drive to establish a Russia which defers to the US. The CEE countries came into Rumsfeld’s ‘New European’ sphere when the then social democratic governments in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland disastrously chose to side with the Bush administration’s ‘war on terrorism’ and participate in the invasion of Iraq. Since this time, and following the eastwards expansion of NATO after 1999, the CEE countries have been important strategic players in the US attempt to expand its hegemony in Europe.
Miserly US economic offer
However, whilst the US has entrenched itself militarily in the region, its economic offer to these countries is miserly.
The US remains a minor economic player in CEE, making up a very small proportion of these countries’ exports (Czech 2.4%, Hungary 2.9%, Poland 2.8%, Slovakia 3.2%) and imports (Czech 2.5%, Hungary 2.1%, Poland 3.1% Slovakia 1.2%). The economies of these countries have grown during the past two decades, mainly due to their entry into the European Union. Whilst US investment remains minuscule, the large inflow of EU funds has helped drive investment into CEE.
Furthermore, the geographical location of these countries means that for them to advance economically, they must have the freedom to trade to their east and west. However, adherence to US priorities means that CEE is cut off from its natural markets to the east. It also makes it easier for the US to undermine attempts by CEE to develop its economic relationship with China via the Belt and Road initiative (see below).
The negative impact of a trade war with Russia was made clear after Russia imposed sanctions on some agricultural products and foodstuffs from the EU, following the introduction of sanctions on Russia by the EU in 2014. The sanctions led to a significant fall in exports to Russia from countries like Poland for foodstuffs such as fruit and dairy products. The current round of stricter sanctions on Russia imposed by the west will have a significant negative economic impact on the region.
As in other European countries, the CEE economies are growing slowly and struggling to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic that severely hit the region. Inflation stands at between 12-14% in Czech, Poland and Slovakia, although (whilst still high) it is around 9% in Hungary.
One of the major sectors sanctioned is the energy sector, with the US attempting to prevent Europe’s consumption of Russian gas and oil. In CEE, Poland has taken the toughest stance against Russia, threatening to block all gas and oil imports from Russia. However, Poland currently receives 46% of its gas, 64% of its oil and 15% of its coal from Russia. Russia cut off gas exports to Poland after refusing to pay for it in Rubles. Rather than buying this gas directly from Russia, it now receives it via Germany. Poland has also increased its import of natural gas from the United States by one-third compared to the same period in 2021. This has led to a rise in electricity bills by around a quarter in 2022 compared to 2021, further squeezing living standards as real wages decline.
In contrast, Hungary has pursued an alternative approach and tried to exempt itself from the oil and gas sanctions against Russia. This has led to a cheap inflow of energy that has kept the price of household electricity at the lowest level in the whole of the EU.
Belt and Road
As noted above, the CEE countries require peaceful cooperation in Europe to trade and develop to their east and west. The expansion of China’s Belt and Road initiative into CEE, making it an important hub connecting western Europe and China, has offered the CEE countries a unique historical opportunity. However, the conflict in Ukraine threatens this prospect, with many companies having suspended deliveries from China to Europe, passing through Russia and Belarus by train and road.
In particular, Poland had already recognised the huge importance of the Belt and Road initiative. In February this year, President Andrzej Duda was one of only two European heads of state to visit the Winter Olympics in China. He talked about transforming Poland into China’s ‘gateway to Europe’, with President Xi Jinping stating that he hoped Poland would become a logistics hub in Europe. Poland is home to train routes connecting China to Europe along the New Eurasian Land Bridge. This railway corridor that crosses all of Eurasia—running through Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus— has become an important branch of the Belt and Road Initiative, dubbed the iron silk road. However, sanctions against Russia have meant that many companies are trying to avoid land routes through Russia and are instead choosing to transport goods by ship, which takes much longer and is more costly and bypasses Poland.
Guns, not butter
Part of the US strategy is to turn CEE into a military centre in Europe for its ongoing conflict with Russia. Achieving this demands that the CEE countries raise their military spending and purchase increasing amounts of US military hardware and weaponry.
Previously, Poland had by far the highest military spending in CEE and one of the highest amongst all EU countries, spending 2.34% of its GDP on defence in 2021, far higher than Slovakia (1.73%), Hungary (1.69%) and the Czech Republic (1.40%). However, all four countries have now agreed to significantly raise defence spending over the next couple of years, with Poland committing to increase its defence spending to above 3% of GDP over the next two years.
CEE has become an expanded market for US weapons and military equipment sales. For example, the USA has promised to help make the Polish army one of the ‘most capable in Europe’. In practice, this has meant that Poland has agreed to purchase the Patriot air defence systems, HIMARS rocket launchers, F-35 combat aircraft and 250 Abrams tanks from the US. Poland has also entered formal negotiations to start the procedure to order ‘further tranches of military equipment.’ This new round of military spending in CEE will inevitably mean that governments will have less economic resources to spend on their countries’ struggling welfare services. Already, the CEE countries spend below the EU average on health, with expenditure below 6% of GDP in both Poland and Hungary very high death rates in many CEE countries during the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed the weaknesses in these countries’ health systems. They have already suffered from decades of under-investment and neo-liberal reform.
The Central and Eastern European countries find themselves in a precarious military and economic situation, which will only get worse if the current conflict in Ukraine intensifies. The expansion of NATO will stoke the fires of conflict rather than overcome enmities and fears. However, the pro-NATO propaganda that the CEE countries are most enthusiastic about the war and exclusively blame Russia is a highly simplified picture.
Large divisions exist amongst the populations of the CEE countries. For example, whilst 73% of Polish society entirely blames Russia for the conflict in Ukraine (behind Finland, Sweden and the UK), only 38% of Slovakians and 41% of Hungarians share this opinion. Similarly, 69% of Poles believe that European countries should invest more in defence and security to defend themselves against Russia, whilst only 29% of Slovakians and 32% of Hungarians agree. (No figures are given for Czechs). Within Eastern Europe more widely, the Baltic countries tend to adopt the most hostile stance towards Russia and most enthusiastically support NATO. But the populations of countries, such as Bulgaria and some Balkan countries, hold opinions that oppose an escalation of the war in Ukraine. They favour negotiation and diplomacy instead. Therefore, the idea that the Eastern European populations unanimously support the US/NATO position in the Ukrainian conflict is a simplified stereotype that conveniently ignores the views of these populations themselves.
US hegemony and the enlargement of NATO bring greater insecurity and increase the threat of conflict. NATO is an arm of US foreign policy, which alone has a veto in the organisation. Membership in NATO means giving up large areas of a country’s self-determination, bringing it behind Washington’s foreign policy priorities.
The current US agenda for CEE risks nuclear escalation, including the (further) nuclearisation of spaces like the Baltic and Kaliningrad. It also increases the risk of a nuclear war breaking out by accident. The CEE countries lie at the forefront of this perilous strategy and would merely be viewed by the US as collateral damage if the military conflict expanded across their borders.
In recent times, Trump and Obama hoped to entice Russia into allying with the US against the latter’s designated primary enemy, China. However, President Biden has since changed tack and believes that the best way to break Russia from an alliance with China is through regime change in Russia. To that end, the US has stepped up its military aggression, through the proxy war being waged in Ukraine. This is a qualitative escalation in US aggression as Russia uniquely possesses a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the US.
Biden has chosen to ignore the advice of major figures like Jack Matlock [career diplomat and ex-ambassador to the Soviet Union] and Henry Kissinger [ex-secretary of state]. They still consider the best way to divide Russia from China is by enticing, not attacking, Russia. However, any commitments made by the US are not sacrosanct, and future presidents may have different strategic priorities. The US will make any direction changes without requiring prior approval from CEE countries. The latter’s security and economic well-being are of little interest in Washington when they do not serve the global interests of the US.
A US-dominated unipolar world is the biggest threat to world peace. The Madrid summit draft 2030 Strategic Concept document proposes a new global role for NATO. Under the banner of NATO, the United States is stepping up its military aggression to counter the effect of its relative economic decline. This policy of increasing US militarisation has nothing positive to offer to the people of Central and Eastern Europe or any other region on the planet.