Geopolitical Themes in European History

On Monday 14 March, The Hague Institute had the privilege of hosting eminent author and geopolitical thinker Robert D. Kaplan for the launch of his new book “In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond”. The event was held in cooperation with VVD International, the European Network of the VVD and the ALDE Group in European Parliament.

Hague Institute President Dr. Abi Williams welcomed Robert Kaplan to the Institute, noting that the author had been recognized twice by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the world’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers.” In his welcome remarks, Dr. Williams highlighted the importance of understanding the history of Europe, observing that many of the grave challenges facing Europe today are legacies of  the continent’s complex and fractured geopolitical past. At a time when the European Union’s very existence is undermined by the challenges of economic integration and  the ongoing migration and refugee crisis, Dr. Williams called for bold and accountable political leadership in Europe and support from her allies abroad. Dr. Williams expressed the hope that the discussion of Romania’s history and future would shed light on how to secure the future of Europe and all her people in the 21st century.

In his introductory remarks, Ferdi de Lange of the VVD highlighted  the influence of Kaplan’s books on political decision-makers in Europe and the United States. Recalling that Bill Clinton was seen with a copy of Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts,” de Lange stated that Kaplan’s account provided invaluable insights into the situation in the Former Yugoslavia that influenced decisions taken in Bosnia and Kosovo during the conflict in the 1990s.

Exploring overarching geopolitical themes in European history through the lens of Romania, Robert Kaplan argued that Romania is an “unjustifiably obscure country.” Throughout its history on the fringes of powerful empires, Romania has been a laboratory for larger political and historical ideas. Kaplan claimed that while World War II ended in Western Europe in 1945, it was not until 1989 that Romania truly escaped the yoke of totalitarianism. War, deprivation and occupation are thus central themes in the history of Romania.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the EU and NATO offered Romania an “escape from history”: the prospect of transparent institutions, the rule of law and the protection of individual rights. For Romania, the EU is therefore “more than a balance sheet.” Instead, it represents something many countries in Eastern Europe have not experienced for the greater part of the 20th century. The 1990s saw great  optimism in Romania. Unfortunately, Kaplan argued, this optimism has somewhat evaporated 20 years down the line. NATO facesmany pressing challenges, the EU faces a serious existential threat and Russia has re-emerged as a strong and capable player in the region.

Kaplan observed that Europe is re-dividing into its Cold War halves. Terrorism and migration preoccupy Western Europe, while the implicit threat of an emboldened Russia worries Eastern Europe. Differing responses to the challenge of refugees from the Middle East, exacerbated by their geographically determined route through Greece and the Balkans, are dividing Europe from within. Vladimir Putin’s political strategy, which involves  undermining weak democracies and institutions, while building up energy networks in the East, is driving a wedge between Eastern and Western Europe.

Hans van Baalen of the ALDE in the European Parliament responded to Kaplan’s remarks, affirming the importance of the European ideal. Arguing that all politics is not only local, but also European and international, van Baalen underscored the need to maintain an open dialogue with citizens at home to ensure they understand the decisions taken by political leaders. Regarding the upcoming Dutch referendum on Ukraine, van Baalen questioned why the Dutch should not give Ukrainians the opportunity to live in a “normal” country, without corruption and where the rule of law and political accountability are paramount. Van Baalen argued that international politics remains a power game, but that it is crucial to be on the right side – not on the side of those who breach international law.

During the question and answer session, moderated by Kamran Ullah, Kaplan responded to questions about Kennan’s theory of containment, alleged European provocation of Russia, how to engage Eastern European countries more actively in addressing the migration crisis, and the political future of Europe as the living memory of WWII and the Cold War fade.

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