From the smallest village to the national capital, memorials celebrating Soviet “liberation” were once a key feature of the Central European urban landscape. But since the end of the Cold War, these monuments have either been taken down or seen their inscriptions rewritten to reflect the realities of Soviet occupation. In their place emerged a new kind of monument that pays tribute to the real liberators.
In 2011, a statue of Ronald Reagan was erected a stone’s throw away from Hungary’s famously ornate parliament building in Budapest. Nine years later he was joined in the same park by his successor George H.W. Bush. Poland takes Reaganmania to another level, with streets, squares, and parks bearing his name across the country, alongside a couple of statues. Most of post-communist Europe loves to honor American presidents and it is little wonder why.
These statues are symbols of gratitude toward a power that is seen as a reliable protector of the freedom, independence, and self-determination of nations that have spent most of their modern history dominated by belligerent neighbors, principally Russia. Far from the wry cynicism towards American power on display across Western Europe, or the outright hostility shown in the Middle East and other parts of the world, Central and Eastern European countries remain committed Atlanticists in principle and in practice.
Statues, streets, and squares bearing the names of Reagan, Woodrow Wilson, and even Bill Clinton or Bush are symbols of an alliance forged in the wake of the Cold War in which countries across the region anchored their security in the United States through NATO. Countries like Georgia and Ukraine have come to understand their failure to join the alliance as the reason for suffering Russian aggression. In turn, Tbilisi and Kyiv have made future NATO membership a geopolitical north star. Ukraine has even embedded this goal into the preamble of its constitution as an eternal aspiration.
Indeed, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine has shown exactly why this historic alignment has become a hegemonic idea in Central Europe. Many in the region see the tragedy in Ukraine as a reflection of their own historical struggle against Russia. After enthusiastically supporting the United States in its adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan with little to show for it in return, Central European countries have finally seen the Atlantic alliance focused on the defense of its eastern periphery.
But how did this situation come about? Nineteenth-century romantic intellectuals across Central Europe looked to Russia, not the West, for leadership. Russia had immense cultural appeal across Central Europe as an enormous Slavic empire that could potentially free Balkan Slavs from the Ottoman yoke and, some hoped, do the same for those within Central Europe’s Germanic empires as well. Pan-Slavism was an incredibly powerful force, as evidenced by the eventual emergence of states like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but also in the persistent Slavophilism of a certain Soviet generation to which Vladimir Putin belongs that sees Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia as three parts of a single East Slavic whole.
Heading into the twentieth century, there was no reason that Central Europe should fall under the sway of the English-speaking world rather than that of the ethnolinguistically similar Russia once the countries of the region won their independence. But a series of fateful alignments resulted in Moscow being associated with stifling conformity, backwardness, and domination, while Washington was viewed as the champion of freedom, prosperity, and national self-determination.
Ultimately, it wasn’t Russia that freed the nations of Central and Eastern Europe from German domination but the United States. While Russia was convulsed by the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war, Woodrow Wilson’s idealism helped countries across the region win their independence in the aftermath of World War I. However, this did not mark the beginning of the Atlantic alliance.
When America’s post-Wilsonian isolationism left Central European countries reliant on Great Britain and France, the result was Western betrayal, German and Soviet invasions, and forty-five years of authoritarian communist rule. For nearly half a century, Central Europe lived in a state of enmity with the West as part of the Warsaw Pact. Communists made use of old pan-Slavic ideas to build socialist solidarity amongst the largely Slavic eastern bloc and bolster states that themselves were pan-Slavic unions like Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.
While communist regimes embraced Slavophilia and Russophilia, their opponents embraced the opposite. Dissident Central European intellectuals cheered America’s hardline stance against the Soviets and argued that their nations were fundamentally members of the West while bemoaning the attitude of appeasement that was fashionable in Western Europe. When those dissidents came to power in 1989 and beyond, this posture became a hegemonic regional ideology.
The nation came to be understood as a fundamental part of the West, with economic and political integration into the European Union representing one pillar and military integration into NATO being the other. This was the so-called “return to Europe.”
The new Central European political elites were Atlanticist in philosophy and in practice, and they made Euro-Atlantic integration the bedrock of their post-communist nations’ security and identity. In a region where anti-Western ideas had dominated for decades and pro-Russian attitudes still exist amongst large swathes of the population, the staying power of Atlanticism amongst political elites is an impressive feat. In Budapest, that hegemony has seemingly been broken by Viktor Orban’s Russophilic national conservatism but as his energetic attempts to court the American Right show, even he would rather change America rather than abandon it altogether.
Fundamentally, Atlanticist hegemony is predicated on Central Europe countries’ perceptions of Russia as their principal national security threat and America as the key protector against it. Hence, the countries that are the most fervently Atlanticist, such as Poland and the Baltic states, see Russian expansionism as an existential threat. Others like Hungary, Slovakia, or Croatia that see no direct threat embrace Atlanticism as a hegemonic reality of regional politics and the bedrock of their own security, but without the same pressing existential concern for their security.
In this sense, there is a dual hegemony. On the one hand is Atlanticism in regional politics and security, and the other in specific national contexts where there are varying levels of commitment and intensity.
Like many old certainties, the course of the twenty-first century has led some to question the tight bond between Europeanism and Atlanticism. After the Global War on Terror, the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, the rise of populist nationalism and Euroskepticism, America’s Indo-Pacific pivot, and increasing calls for European strategic sovereignty, the centrality of Central European Atlanticism has come under fire from multiple angles.
Central European countries largely supported the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan to demonstrate their commitment to NATO. By Libya, however, they had come to question NATO and America’s focus on regions that had little security relevance to Central Europe while ignoring the threat of Russian revanchism that Central Europeans saw looming after the invasion of Georgia in 2008. Similarly, when NATO shifted its focus from large-scale land warfare to expeditionary warfare in far-off countries, Poland protested, but to no avail.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seemingly vindicated the dual hegemony, both in the face of Western European critics who often view their eastern neighbors as alarmist anti-Russian American lapdogs and in the face of domestic publics that are in many cases far less Atlanticist than their political elites. America is committed to the defense of Central Europe, it seems, and that commitment is tangible and generous. If the United States can help Ukraine, one of Europe’s poorest countries, fend off Russia’s full-scale invasion, then defending the rest of NATO in Europe should be no problem at all.
It was never simply about being unquestioningly obedient to Washington, or about some irrational hatred of Russia. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are small, divided, and vulnerable—a fact that led to unspeakable horrors and deprivations over the course of the twentieth century. The most powerful country in the world helped bring that to an end and then promised it would never happen again by extending its security umbrella. It is no coincidence that Reagan, the hardline anti-communist, is the most celebrated American president in the region, including in Budapest.
Russian state propaganda heaps scorn on “Anglo-Saxons” foiling Russia’s plans for its “near abroad.” This is a response to the Atlanticist compact that defines the political orientation of western-aligned Central and Eastern Europe. Russia would love nothing more than for the defense of Central and Eastern Europe to be left in the hands of France and Germany, or to the indecisive organs of the European Union. The same cannot yet be said for those that would need to be defended.
Like so many of Putin’s actions that achieve the opposite of what he seemingly intended, as long as Russia continues to threaten Europe’s eastern flank, Atlanticism will remain a hegemonic idea in Warsaw, Prague, Vilnius, and, worst of all for them, Kyiv. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the ultimate confirmation of the fears that drove Central Europe into Washington’s arms in the first place, and Moscow will never have the strength to break this alliance with force alone.