An East-West Divide in Europe?

There is a big conversation brewing about the deepening East-West divide in the European Union.  Much of this conversation started long before the pandemic.  Social scientists like R. Daniel Kelemen have been worried for a long time now about the diverging trajectories in democratic institutions and about the possible roles that European Union (EU) institutions may have played in supporting that evolution.  More recent scholarship shows how the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated that tension.  This raises questions about whether such developments were always likely to happen, and about how we can better understand East-West relations in Europe.  Fortunately, three brilliant new books promise to help in that understanding.  The first, by Larry Wolff, examines the role of Woodrow Wilson in help shaping the politics of Central and Eastern Europe.  The second, by John Connelly, explores the evolution of East European nationalism.  The third, by Lenka Bustikova, examines the problem of extreme right mobilization.  The conclusion I take away from these books is that there are important political dynamics at work in Eastern Europe that need deeper understanding; it is not that East and West are fundamentally different.  We can learn a lot from the study of Eastern Europe as we struggle to interpret developments elsewhere as well – Western Europe very much included.

The analysis starts with the formation of East European states and the tension between majority and minority rights that has become central to many political conversations in the region. No conversation about minority rights in Central and Eastern Europe would be complete without consideration of the influence of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson cemented the principles of self-determination and autonomous development in a region that was previously dominated by empires. In doing so, he not only redrew the map but also reengineered the lines of authority and legitimacy that extend from political leaders to the people they govern and back again. These actions spawned ‘international relations’ as an intellectual discipline and gave birth to a new school of ‘realism’. In turn, much ink has been spilled on the historical ‘mistakes’ made by Wilson but very little on his true motivations.

Larry Wolff fills a yawning gap in our understanding with a compassionate and complex argument about how Woodrow Wilson reimagined a region of the world he never visited, and then rebuilt that world according to theories that no one had ever seen work in practice. In doing so, Wolff reminds us both that Wilson was only human, and therefore prone to bias rooted in his personal experience, and that imagination is crucial to any kind of political program.

The first point about Wilson’s bias is an important theme in recent scholarship on Wilson’s tenure as American president. Much of that scholarship focuses on Wilson’s discrimination against Black Americans and his segregation of the civil service. Wolff shows how Wilson also took an early dislike to Ottoman Turks, and how Wilson’s disdain for the Ottoman Empire combined with his revulsion at the Armenian massacre to create an instinct for national liberation from enslavement by foreigners that would gradually expand to encompass his view of the Habsburgs and the Germans. This is the path through which Wilson became devoted to self-determination.

It would be a mistake, however, to focus too narrowly on Wilson’s prejudice. Wolff also highlights the influence of chance encounters with groups of hyphenated Americans who immigrated themselves or whose forebears came from across Central and Eastern Europe to settle in communities around the Great Lakes. Wilson was, after all, a politician. Friendships also mattered, like those between Wilson and Tomáš Masaryk or Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Antagonisms played a role as well, as the Italians and Romanians quickly learned. Wilson’s affections for the region had a deeply personal dimension.

The second point is where the argument gets more complicated. The challenge for Wilson is to imagine the building blocks for self-standing communities. His thinking on the matter is not always consistent or even transparent. Wilson does not immediately look to religion. He has strong Christian influences, but he does not recognize the bonds that might exist between the Ottoman Empire and the wider Islamic community, for example. Wilson also does not see the necessity for language as a glue and he has a deep sense of pride for America’s ethnic diversity. Communities of choice are also possible.

Most important, Wilson and his advisors – in The Inquiry – recognize the tension that runs between the ‘nation’ as a community and ‘nationalism’ as a program. Nations may provide structure for Central and Eastern Europe, but nationalism is destabilizing given the mixed political geography of the region. Wolff shows Wilson using mental and physical maps to resolve this dilemma. Wilson’s insistence on drawing lines necessarily entails the reification of official majorities and minorities. Perhaps if he had framed his thoughts with something other than cartography as a model, the results would have been very different.


Woodrow Wilson did not create the combined problem of nationalism and ethnic conflict in Central and Eastern Europe. And while the introduction of self-determination added to the tensions, it would be a mistake to assume that there were any obvious alternatives for reorganizing the political geography of the region. Nationalism was going to play a role in restructuring Europe during and after the collapse of the Ottoman, Habsburg, Prussian, German, and Soviet empires under almost any conceivable circumstances. The ‘nations’ that form might be different, and not all of them might prove enduring, but the pattern of collective mobilization was already too deeply rooted in the region by the middle of the 19th Century to be resisted well into the 21st.

John Connelly makes this argument in what will doubtless emerge as a landmark contribution to the study of nationalism as a political force in Eastern Europe (his preferred term). Connelly takes aim at the major scholars of nationalism – Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson – to insist that they should focus on ‘nationalism’ as it manifests and not as a concept in the abstract. In the region that stretches from Germany to Russia and from the Baltic to the Adriatic, that nationalism has a specific significance. It is defensive and not creative. The goal is to prevent annihilation, to ensure security, and to protect against injustice. This does not mean nationalists from the region fail to aspire to produce great cultural and artistic works; what it means is that they draw energy from threats and through resistance to oppression. The harder outside forces work to eliminate this force, the stronger it becomes. It is anti-fragile, to borrow from Nicholas Nassim Taleb (my addition, not Connelly’s) – which makes Central and East European nationalism more than just resilient.

In constructing his argument, Connelly sketches a history of the region within which intellectual elites imagine political communities and then set about creating a common language to unite them. Importantly, however, this process does not begin from a blank slate. The region is littered with different groups that speak a wide variety of dialects, worship different regions, and learn different historical narratives. This patchwork or mosaic existence is an important condition for the defensive nationalism Connelly identifies to take root. The political project of any one group becomes an implicit threat of assimilation to any others that share the same space. National unification is only possible once diversity is minimized, displaced, or eliminated. No group is innocent in this competition; they are either successful in promoting their people to nationhood or they are forgotten.

This notion of community is anti-liberal and anti-communist. Nevertheless, it tends to flourish under multi-ethnic democracy and under Soviet domination. Connelly shows how what started as a revolt against 19th Century imperial rule evolved through the period of self-determination after the First World War and into the division of Europe under the Cold War. At each step, the pattern of mobilization evolved even as reliance on ‘preservation of community’ as the formula for legitimation remained consistent.

This kind of political mobilization cannot be defeated with direct force; its attractiveness is tied to a sense of victimhood and so also resists denigration. Critics of contemporary nationalists should take note. There is no point insisting that the people drawn to nationalist rhetoric forget the distant past. They remember the past so that the injustices they perceive will not be repeated upon them. The challenge is to foster a sense of confidence and reassurance that their community will continue to exist.


That challenge of building national self-confidence is only getting harder. For a short time after the fall of communism, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe outside former Yugoslavia did not experience a rise of right-wing extremism. Before long, however, many countries started to show the presence of political parties that leaned to the left on economic and redistributive issues but to the right on matters related to culture and identity politics. The question is why. The people of these countries were never thrilled about foreigners (although it would be unfair to refer to them as outright xenophobic). They also did not enjoy a dramatic change in economic circumstances, except perhaps for the better (at least for some). Meanwhile, the European Union offered the promise of acceptance either as a member or as a neighbor – providing that countries embrace democratic liberalism. The growth of radical right-wing parties in this context is therefore hard to understand, particularly given their eclectic brand of welfare chauvinism.

Lenka Bustikova offers an interesting insight on the political dynamics that set radical politics in Central and Eastern Europe alight. She argues that the element missing from conventional explanations for right-wing extremism is the rise of minority ethnic groups that have long been present in the region but are only now insisting on their social, political, and economic rights. Wherever parties supporting these groups rise in prominence or political power, and wherever the demands of these minorities find their way onto the policy agenda, the growth of radical right-wing extremism will not be far behind. Members of the dominant ethnic group do not like their dominance threatened and will mobilize to preserve and perhaps even reinforce their status in response. Bustikova offers a wealth of empirical data to support this contention, both across the region and particularly in Slovakia and Ukraine. The result is a compelling argument that threats to status should be taken seriously in any explanation.

Bustikova provides an impressive piece of empirical research wrapped in a careful and convincing analysis. Moreover, it is easy to understand that she would need to limit her focus to collect this kind of detailed information. Nevertheless, the book is more important for the questions it raises than for the argument she makes. Yes, it is plausible that right-wing extremist groups rally support from a dominant group whose status is threatened by minorities inside the country. But what does that tell us about causality or about the importance of political parties? If we push her argument more forcefully, the application moves quickly beyond Central and Eastern Europe.

The causal point is worth stressing. Bustikova pushes back against arguments that right-wing extremism comes from xenophobia or economic hardship. Her claim is that these things are constants and yet support for radical parties tends to vary. That is true, but it is like saying that oxygen is a constant even if fire is not. Put another way, you would not succeed in winning over the supporters of radical right-wing parties by ignoring their economic grievances no matter what your position on minority rights. That is a lesson that some of the more moderate members of the U.S. Democratic Party have failed to realize, particularly when making concessions on legislation to protect the LGBT community.

The point about political parties is important as well. Bustikova focuses on coalition dynamics because the countries she studies have proportional electoral systems. If she looked at first-past-the-post countries like Great Britain and the United States she would have to focus on a different unit of analysis. The movement politics underpinning the Leave campaign or the dive to ‘Make America Great Again’ are good illustrations. But you also could go back to earlier episodes. Bustikova is correct in her analysis, but she could be more daring in expanding her findings to other countries.

These reviews were originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of Survival.  They were published as individual essays, but I hope they speak together effectively.  You can find the edited version of these reviews here.


Woodrow Wilson and the Reimagining of Eastern Europe. By Larry Wolff. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020.

From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe. By John Connelly. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. X + 956 pp.

Extreme Reactions: Radical Right Mobilization in Eastern Europe. By Lenka Bustikova. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Xiv + 298 pp.