Since 1991, most of eastern and southern Europe has solidly been under the economic domination of the United States and Britain. In addition to the dominance of western banking institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, NATO troops have been stationed in these countries. The governments of most eastern and southern European states have joined in the chorus of hostility to Russia echoing from London, Paris, and New York.
However, this state of affairs is not set in stone. The economic struggle underlying the rising military tensions points to why the US-NATO position isn’t as solid as some may think.
Two Decades of Humiliation
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the various Marxist-Leninist governments of this region dramatically collapsed. The result was an economic catastrophe. Nearly overnight, countries like Romania, Albania, Poland, Bulgaria, and Lithuania suddenly faced high rates of poverty, unemployment, crime and drug addiction.
Eastern Europe became the global center of human trafficking, i.e. modern-day slavery. Heroin from central Asia flowed into the formerly socialist countries, bringing in the addiction and brutal criminal organizations associated with it.
The dramatic privatization of eastern European economies was presided over by US economists, Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University being the most well known. As the catastrophe erupted in the early 1990s, Sachs and others argued that it was only temporary. They said that the transition to the free market would be painful, but the end result would be prosperity.
During the lead up the Iraq war, US President George W. Bush went as far as to call the regimes of this region the “New Europe.” Bush argued that the free market NATO regimes that had joined his “coalition of the willing” were the future of western civilization, in contrast to the social-democratic regimes of France, Austria, and Germany who had questioned his decision to invade Iraq.
But after twenty six years, the results of western economic domination sit before the eyes of the entire world. Over two-and-a-half decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the poverty and chaos in NATO dominated eastern and southern Europe has not subsided. Lithuania and Latvia, two countries that now host NATO troops, are tied in the CIA’s World Factbook rankings for life expectancy at birth. They can both boast of having the lowest life expectancy in Europe.
Formerly socialist countries throughout this region have dramatically high rates of infant mortality, with often more than 10 out of every 1000 babies never reaching their first birthday. In Bulgaria, another country hosting NATO soldiers and tanks, the rate of infant mortality has climbed to 15 out of 1000.
The 2008-2009 western capitalist crisis exacerbated the situation. The International Monetary Fund has ordered swift austerity measures, and the obedient governments have gutted their domestic economies. Romania cut the wages of its public employees by 25% after the 2008-2009 crisis. Lithuania cut the wages of its public employees by 30% in 2010. In 2010, Bulgaria reduced its public budget by 30% in order to satisfy the international bankers.
The women of eastern Europe who had years of paid maternity leave, guaranteed jobs, and free university education before 1991, are now trafficked at the highest rates in the world. Since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, a dramatically high level of heroin production has supplied criminal organizations with enough product to addict the newly unemployed and economically insecure populations. While Russia has significantly recovered, with an economy centered around publicly owned oil and natural gas resources, the NATO aligned states are perfect examples of poverty, crime, and economic dis-empowerment.
NATO Soldiers & “Suckers”
As the economic and social problems brought on by the rapid transition to capitalism in eastern Europe have intensified, especially following the 2008-2009 crash, so has the presence of NATO troops, and military equipment.
In 2014, as Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych moved closer to Russia and opposed deals with the IMF, NATO, and the European Union he was deposed in a wave of violent street protests. The “Euromaidan” movement was portrayed in the western media as a general outpouring against corruption, but in Ukrainian politics it served to empower highly partisan forces in the country’s western regions. The new, pro-NATO government has forcibly broken up and suppressed the Communist Party and the Party of Regions. It has also dramatically reduced the pensions of the elderly, and doubled the price of heating gas at the behest of the IMF.
The Poroshenko government in Ukraine now has military advisers from the United States Armed Forces. The US military cooperates closely with the Ukrainian government, despite the existence of the Azov Battalion of open Nazis as a cherished section of the new Ukrainian military. The NATO-backed government in Kiev now wages war against the peoples of Ukraine’s Eastern regions who have seceded and formed “People’s Republics,” rejecting the “Pro-European” forces that have taken power.
The United States and its NATO partners have recently gone as far as to establish a missile system in Poland. This system gives the United States and the NATO regimes what was called, in Cold War terminology, “first strike capability”. From their bases in Poland, US and NATO forces can launch an attack on Russia. The new missile system enables them to then deflect any retaliation.
The establishment of the strike-enabling missile system in Poland was accompanied by a wave of political repression. Anti-NATO activists like Mateusz Piskorski and the leaders of the Polish Communist Party have been jailed in order to make sure that NATO’s threats against Russia go unchallenged.
Though the Polish regime publicly gives the impression of unanimity, a phone call was leaked in 2014 that told a different story. The leaked recording featured Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister saying: “The Polish-US alliance isn’t worth anything.” He went on to say: “We are suckers, total suckers. The problem in Poland is that we have shallow pride and low self-esteem.” He went on to obscenely compare the Polish government’s relationship with the United States to a submissive sexual position.
Two Kinds of “Development Strategies”
As the tension in Eastern Europe increases, Eurasia has deployed what could be described as a very powerful, yet non-deadly weapon in its arsenal. He is commonly called “the Big Boss” in his homeland, but to the world he is known as Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi is visiting Serbia and Poland on a diplomatic tour, offering loans to these countries, and talking about making eastern and central Europe part of China’s vision for a “New Silk Road.”
Western media speaks of the rising European tensions only in military and political terms. Forces who oppose NATO are called “Pro-Russian” and forces who support it are called “Pro-European.” In western discourse, the contending economic philosophies and institutions underlying geopolitical relationships are often ignored, despite being quite obvious.
Joining NATO and the European Union’s sphere of influence means taking loans from the institutions established by western powers at the Bretton Woods Conference. “Development” loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank often stipulate privatizations, public sector budget cuts, and the transition to an unregulated, free market economy. Generally this means that formerly public assets become the property of western corporations. Furthermore, the domestic economy of the country in question becomes dominated by foreign entities, as the ability of the state to restrict or regulate foreign trade and investment is restrained.
The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement of Trade and Tariffs, and the World Trade Organization all adhere to an ideological belief in capitalism. “Free Trade,” a stipulation for receiving economic assistance from NATO, tends to result in a dramatic expansion of the profits and influence of western economic entities and, consequently, leads to the elimination of domestic competitors.
However, entering the Eurasian sphere of influence generally means the strengthening of public infrastructure. China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy has involved itself in lending money to governments around the world at low interest rates, in order help them build power plants and transportation systems.
In South America, low interest loans from China have enabled the government of Brazil to build a number of hydro-electrical power plants. In Nicaragua, China is financing the construction of a state-controlled, intercontinental canal that can serve as an alternative to the Panama Canal controlled by the United States. China is financing a similar canal project in Egypt. They are currently constructing high-speed trains across Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and other parts of Central Asia, as well as in Indonesia. China’s loans to African countries often encourage the establishment of universities and hospitals.
In Serbia and Poland, Xi Jinping’s speeches have highlighted the role of Europe in the original Silk Road that spread far more than fabric across human civilization a thousand years ago. The “New Silk Road” Xi is touting to European audiences involves high-speed railways, power plants, hospitals, and universities. It is focused on training and unleashing a new generation of eastern European scientists and engineers and putting them to work, cooperating with Chinese corporations to make new discoveries and to build new technologies.
The “Geo-Economic” Weakness of Western Capitalism
Recent publications and presentations from the Council on Foreign Relations have noted China’s strength in the field of “Geo-Economics.” Due to the fact that the Chinese government has the proven ability to force CEOs and capitalists to obey their orders, China is significantly more effective in global economics. The Chinese government has no fear of corporations breaking ranks and trading with the enemy because Chinese capitalists have no real “property rights” recognized by the state. Corporations and billionaires in China routinely face intense oversight and harsh punishment. Because they are subordinate to the government, economic institutions in China have no choice but to be “team players,” and must cooperate with the Communist Party’s foreign policy goals. Putin’s economic and political model in Russia is very similar. Oligarchs who flaunt the interests of Russian society at large risk facing the wrath of a powerful state supported by a highly loyal and mobilized population.
In terms of military hardware and boots on the ground, the United States and NATO may have the upper hand in Eastern Europe. But as Xi Jinping makes his way through Serbia and Poland, talking about high-speed trains, hospitals, and schools, the question of who will trade with who is far from resolved.
The greed of western corporations, often hailed as a “strength” that drives “individual initiative” may end up being a weakness. Nations and peoples generally don’t favor having their economies forcibly gutted for the benefit of bankers in far-off lands. As people across the region realize, like Wladyslaw Sikorski did, that they have been “suckers,” things may dramatically change.
In global affairs, the winner is not always the one with the biggest gun. Often, it is the most generous and charitable force, one with the ability to win hearts and minds, not just battles, that ends up with more friends.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.