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'High Noon,' 30 years ago: Inspiration for the US-Central Europe relationship of tomorrow

'High Noon,' 30 years ago: Inspiration for the US-Central Europe relationship of tomorrow
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On June 4, 1989, an image of Gary Cooper could be spotted on the streets of Polish cities. In this poster, the brave marshal from the “High Noon” movie challenged the communist regime to a duel at the ballot box that day. He wore a Solidarity badge in his lapel and carried a Solidarity ballot in his hand. He symbolized what America meant to Poles and other Central Europeans: strength in the service of freedom.

With generosity toward an American archetype, Lech Wałęsa later said: “Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom, both physical and spiritual. Solidarity trounced the Communists in that election, paving the way for a democratic government in Poland. It is always so touching when people bring this poster up to me to autograph...it has become the emblem of the battle that we all fought together.”

In July 1989, President George H. W. Bush visited Poland and Hungary, throwing America’s power behind the changes just getting started. Buoyed by this solidarity, these countries, soon joined by Czechoslovakia and others from the Baltic to the Black Sea, were able to reach out to the transatlantic family, seeing it as an anchor, ally, and role model. They launched transformative democratic and free market reforms. These worked — imperfectly, but in many cases dramatically. Strategic consequences followed, as Central European countries joined NATO and the European Union. The Soviet Union, which until a few years before many still believed was winning the Cold War, collapsed. Divided Europe gave way to a united Europe.

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The Central Europeans did the heavy lifting at home, putting the commitments of the old democratic dissident movements into practice.

The U.S. led the West’s response, investing in a democratic peace and prosperity in the part of Europe where two World Wars and the Cold War began.

The U.S. acted on behalf of its values and in doing so advanced its interests. Whatever the later frustrations of U.S. foreign policy leadership along such lines — the Arab Spring comes to mind — the post-communist transformation of 1989 stands as vindication of the insight that national interests and universal values can advance together. Notwithstanding unresolved problems and new challenges, the breakthrough of 30 years ago gave the transatlantic community, now enlarged, a generation of general peace and prosperity — its best ever — the product in large part of an American-Central European alliance rooted in the highest traditions of both. 

But today, this achievement is often taken for granted and its lessons challenged.

In America and Central Europe, as elsewhere in the West, confident commitment to liberal democracy is beset by a narrow, defensive vision of the national interest, and flirtation with statism and authoritarianism. Some call for retreat from democratic solidarity to spheres-of-influence based on power and indifference to values. The United States and Central Europe gain much from European integration (which ended centuries of European wars and generations of Central European marginalization), yet politicians in both feel free to bash it.  

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Challenges should spur action. To that end, we and our colleagues have issued a report, “The United States and Central Europe: Tasks for a Second Century Together,” that outlines recommendations for common action by Central Europe and the US to meet 21st century challenges.

Our agenda includes security, business development, and issues of common values. Happily, there is much to work with: Central Europeans generally remain Atlanticist, and the Trump Administration is active in the region, leading efforts to defend NATO’s eastern flank (building on the Obama Administration’s efforts) and seeking to push regional energy and other infrastructure projects, even drawing closer to a complementary stance with the EU.

Beyond the specifics, our point is this: when the United States and Central Europe have acted to advance our respective national interests and values together, we succeeded in spectacular fashion.

Common values and world outlooks based on a broad, not narrow vision of possibilities drove that relationship, and our nations, Europe, and the world benefited thereby.

Now, as 30 years ago, we need to harness our best values for new challenges — the new version of Russian aggression and Chinese ambition among them. 

Arguments within the West — between Europe and the United States, or between Western and Central Europe — are unimportant compared to the greater strategic challenges we face.

An instrumental relationship would generate little: The U.S. must not use Central Europe as some sort of lever in unnecessary quarrels with the EU; the Central Europeans must not imagine that the U.S. can ever be a substitute for membership in an undivided Europe that it took so much effort to achieve. The West needs more strategic integration, not less. The EU is a critical partner for the U.S., and Central Europe can act (especially post-Brexit) as a driver of transatlantic accord on a higher — not lowest common denominator — level.

In “High Noon,” Marshal Will Kane played by Gary Cooper wins the gunfight, but as the townspeople cluster around him, he throws his marshal’s star on the ground and departs with his bride on the wagon; he’s had enough of helping the town that did not appreciate the benefit of security which he had brought them. In real life, as in “High Noon,” even happy endings are not once and for all. The challenge continues.

Daniel Fried and Jakub Wisniewski are contributors to a recent study by the Atlantic Council and Bratislava-based GLOBSEC, entitled “The United States and Central Europe – tasks for a second century together.” Ambassador Fried is a former U.S. diplomat who worked on Europe and Central Europe after 1989; Ambassador Wisniewski served in the Polish Foreign Ministry after 1989, including as head of its policy planning office.