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Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: The Essays of Zbigniew Brzezinski
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Peaceful Engagement in Eastern Europe

THE United States has never had a realistic and effective foreign policy toward Eastern Europe. During World War II the official American position was that the disposition of Eastern European problems should await the peace settlement, but this was primarily a rationalization for a lack of policy. After the war, when the area became dominated by the Soviet Union (to some extent because of Western passivity), the American interest in Eastern Europe was overshadowed by the policy of containment. Containment was meant to halt further expansion of Communism, but by its nature it had only indirect bearing on areas already under Soviet domination. As a result, Soviet control of Eastern Europe was not seriously contested by the West during the period roughly from 1948 to 1953. The Eisenhower Administration then enunciated the policy of liberation. Subsequent events increasingly demonstrated the lack of realism and purpose behind this, and it soon became an empty slogan. The popular risings in East Berlin in 1953 and in Budapest in 1956 were the final nails in its coffin.

Since 1956 there has been uncertainty about the goals and means of American policy toward Eastern Europe. It is by now fairly well agreed that the situation there is far more diverse than was the simple Stalinist pattern of uniformity. It is also recognized that the new situation offers both a challenge and a hope to the free world. Accordingly, the purpose of this article is to discuss the goals of American policy in Eastern Europe and the most effective means for pursuing them.

In dealing with the Communist régimes in Eastern Europe, American policy must operate on two levels: it must consider the régimes as such and it must consider the peoples they rule. To focus on one alone distorts our appraisal and prevents us from taking advantage of existing opportunities. In dealing with areas outside their bloc, the Communists have always realized that in order for foreign policy to be successful it must operate simultaneously on more than one level. A dual policy is equally necessary for the United States.


At the present time, the situation in Eastern Europe is dominated by two processes: the tensions which erupted so violently in 1956 are subsiding while Sino-Soviet disagreements persist. The interaction of these two factors has profoundly changed the Eastern European scene. Since the Second World War, each country in the area has had until now to deal only with the Soviet Union; today for the first time each has room for manœuvre between the Soviet Union and Communist China. Most of the Communist leaderships have cast their lot with the Soviet Union--the Polish and the Hungarian enthusiastically, the East German and the Bulgarian less so. The Albanians, on the other hand, seem clearly to have opted for the Chinese, but apparently--and this is the new element--they have been able to do so and still remain within the bloc.

Another new factor on the present Eastern European scene is the basic alteration in its prevailing climate of political opinion. Eastern Europeans now think that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union wants war (although the Chinese may); that there will be no overthrow (by the West) of their Communist régimes; and that further changes are likely to stem from evolutionary developments within their own countries and within the bloc. Some of the régimes themselves also show more confidence in their dealings with East and West.

On the domestic scene, the Eastern European governments are now beginning to face the crisis of generations. The present generation of prewar Communists is made up of men in their late fifties and early sixties at least, and there is a major age gap between them and the young postwar careerists. Specifically, when the important First Secretaries die, as is likely to happen within the next decade, the problem of succession will immediately become linked to the crisis of generations. Aggravating the situation is the fact that both Khrushchev and Mao are of an age when they may leave the scene at any time.

In addition, the events of 1956 in Poland and Hungary dissipated most of the orthodox Communist belief. It has now given way, particularly among younger Communists, to less dogmatic, vaguer, albeit still Marxist, notions which are in some respects akin to Western Social Democracy but which can perhaps be more usefully labeled as "Marxist-Leninist reformism": certain basic and primarily socio-economic socialist notions are endorsed but without fanaticism. Also, the basic outlines of a socialist welfare society have taken root in Eastern Europe, which has not had the most fortunate experience with either free enterprise or foreign capital. Even staunch anti-Communists accept the notion of a planned society with the public sector dominant.

In this situation it would seem that the United States should adopt a policy of what might be called peaceful engagement in Eastern Europe. This policy should: (1) aim at stimulating further diversity in the Communist bloc; (2) thus increasing the likelihood that the East European states can achieve a greater measure of political independence from Soviet domination; (3) thereby ultimately leading to the creation of a neutral belt of states which, like the Finnish, would enjoy genuine popular freedom of choice in internal policy while not being hostile to the Soviet Union and not belonging to Western military alliances. Finally, American policy must dissociate itself from any notion that it favors a restoration in Eastern Europe of an economic system patterned on that of the West.

Such a policy would be fully in keeping with the American long-range goal of a free and pluralistic world with diversity of political and social structures. It would also be in accord with the interests of the East European peoples and potentially with those of some of their ruling élites. Lastly, while not in harmony with Moscow's present desire to continue its domination of the area (and indeed to expand beyond it), the policy proposed is not in conflict with the legitimate security interests of the Soviet Union--specifically its need to deny the area to any hostile military and political grouping.

A policy of peaceful engagement in Eastern Europe would not include an explicit demand for Soviet withdrawal from the area ("liberation"), especially as we are prepared to offer only verbal protests when the Soviet Union takes military measures to assert its primacy. On both political and moral grounds our policy ought to combine a continued demand for national self-determination in Eastern Europe with an effort to promote the peaceful transformation of existing régimes from Communist-type, Soviet-sponsored systems into something like Western-type social democracies, closely tied to the socio-economic development of Europe as a whole.

The East European régimes are not based on popular consent; and they exist in violation of a number of international commitments undertaken by the Soviet Union. The United States therefore has every right and duty to reiterate its strong condemnation of them. We must not allow Soviet sensitivity to such charges to stop us from making them, especially since the Soviet Union at the same time maintains that peaceful coexistence does not preclude its right to intervene in the affairs of the West.

Moral considerations apart, the United States must insist on self-determination in Eastern Europe in order to prevent the violent anti-Western reaction there which would follow any apparent endorsement of Soviet control and any act which seemed to recognize that Communist rule was permanent. Our failure to maintain this position would weaken the democratic spirit which persists in Eastern Europe despite the passivity of the Western democracies in 1956. It would strengthen the cohesion of the Communist world, compromise the principles on which American policy has been based and weaken the United States as a symbol of freedom and self-determination.

However, a general attitude of disapproval does not preclude our attempting to improve our political, economic and cultural relations with the East European states, provided these régimes refrain from hostile acts toward us. On the political plane, we should strive to maintain reasonably correct and even in some cases coöperative relations with them. There is no reason, for example, why some of the Eastern European leaders should not visit the United States and high American officials go on reciprocal visits. People in Eastern Europe are sophisticated enough to be able to distinguish between formal American relations with the régimes that rule them and American approval of those régimes, with an implied falling off of interest in their own welfare. The enthusiastic reception given Vice President Nixon in Warsaw in 1959 was not due to or affected by any formal relations with the Polish Communist régime, but a popular response to what the Poles construed as evidence of continuing American interest in them.

On the economic plane, there is no overriding reason why America should not aid the economic development of some of the Communist nations of Eastern Europe. It no longer seems likely that economic crises would lead to the collapse of their régimes; thus "the worse, the better" theory does not apply, as it possibly did during the Stalinist period. The Soviet Union promotes the economic development of non-Communist states which in its eyes are controlled by "bourgeois nationalists" who are "subjectively" hostile to it. We should adopt a similar attitude toward Eastern Europe. The populations there are friendly to us; they hope for a change in their lot. A betterment in their economic conditions, brought about in part by our efforts, could be in our interest.

A free society by definition and interest should favor the freest possible flow of ideas and persons across national boundaries. Communist régimes have traditionally opposed it. It would be natural, then, for American policy to welcome any increase in contacts, of whatever character, with Eastern Europe. Only two points need be made in this connection. First, an exchange limited solely to technical and artistic personnel should not be viewed as a satisfactory basis of agreement. The least we should ask and insist upon obtaining is a balanced representation also of the humanities and social sciences. Otherwise, cultural exchange can become merely a Communist technique for closing the scientific and technical gap. The second point is that in Communist eyes peaceful coexistence means many things, including, as Mr. Khrushchev has recently reminded us, intensification of the ideological struggle; he is right. For this reason, we should strive to develop informal but regular contacts with the East European élites, perhaps on the model of the recent Dartmouth and other meetings with Soviet intellectuals.

At the same time, we should encourage some of our allies to undertake a more positive attitude toward Eastern Europe. Some of them have traditional bonds of friendship with the East European countries. The French and the British could help the United States greatly in establishing closer links with Poland and Czechoslovakia. In this regard the Germans, for some decades to come, can probably do little more than reduce the hostility felt toward them; but it would be a forward step if the Bonn government could make a substantial offer of compensation to Nazi victims in Eastern Europe, as it has done so successfully in the case of Israel. As regards Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria, the Germans can do much more through political, economic and cultural relationships. The French have already accomplished much there in the cultural field, a task for which they are uniquely fitted; and they might do even more. Italy already has established remarkable economic and cultural relations with Jugoslavia and could gradually develop the same with other Balkan countries.

In this connection, the time seems to have come for the West German government to reëxamine its rather rigid refusal to enter into diplomatic relations with any country which recognizes East Germany. (When Jugoslavia recognized the East German government in 1957, Bonn immediately broke off relations with Belgrade and to this day they remain suspended.) This so-called Hallstein doctrine has already been waived with respect to the Soviet Union. In German eyes this is a proper exception, since the Soviet Union occupies a part of Germany. But though many proposals have been heard both inside and outside Germany for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bonn and Warsaw and Bonn and Prague, the West German government has so far refused; it has held that some 20 African and Asian states would then recognize East Germany, which they are still restrained from doing by the Hallstein doctrine and the manner in which Bonn applied it to Belgrade.

Perhaps our West German allies might be well advised to consider seriously the possibility of distinguishing between free and captive nations. The West Germans could state that the Hallstein doctrine must apply to free nations which can exercise a free choice but not to captive ones, the Soviet satellites. If a free nation decided to recognize East Germany, the West Germans would break relations with it and presumably apply economic sanctions. The threat of economic sanctions more than anything else has prevented most nations from recognizing the East German régime. Thus a distinction between free and captive nations in so far as the Hallstein doctrine is concerned will not seriously hurt West German interests while at the same time it would give Bonn a freedom of action in respect to Eastern Europe which they do not have at present.

At the same time we should encourage all of our European allies to invite some or all of the East European countries into West European economic and cultural undertakings. Such invitations will probably be unanswered or rejected, but they should be left standing so that even an immediate rejection does not permanently close the door. At every sign of economic difficulties in Eastern Europe, these invitations ought to be renewed, so that the régime concerned would have to take account of the reaction of their peoples, who are anxious to become again a part of Europe and are aware that their régimes prevent them from securing the advantages of doing so.

Let us remember, as a last general guide-line, the importance of maintaining as much popular contact between the East and the West as possible. Given the Soviet violations of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements, the West has a right and obligation to maintain direct contact with the peoples involved and to keep them informed on both international and domestic affairs.

The Communist régimes naturally seek to maintain their monopoly on the means of communication in these countries, because otherwise they cannot transform them into totalitarian societies. In broadcasting to the captive peoples, the West is performing one of the roles of a free democratic opposition which the Soviet Union and the East European Communist régimes deny to their peoples. We should not consider stopping these broadcasts in return for some Soviet concession. The only kind of concession which would justify suspension would be for the Soviet Union to implement its earlier commitments regarding free elections, free speech and a free press. On any other terms, a compromise that caused us to give up our broadcast coverage of internal affairs in Eastern Europe would be a bad bargain.


Let us now consider, country by country, how we might accentuate the trend toward diversity and non-dependence in the states of Eastern Europe without seeming to try to wrest them from the Soviet sphere of influence.

Poland. This is the largest, the most important and the most complicated area with which the suggested American policies must deal. Our attitude toward Poland involves very directly one of our major allies, the German Federal Republic. The reason for this is, of course, the Polish-German boundary issue. Since this is the crux of Polish-German relations, the American attitude toward it must be a major factor in any American policy toward Poland. At present the lack of clarity in official American policy on this issue is exploited effectively by Communist circles interested in maintaining Soviet control over Poland. Since it is to the advantage of both Washington and Bonn to diminish Polish links to Moscow (a development without which German reunification is out of the question), it follows that it is in the joint interests of Washington and Bonn to reduce genuine Polish fears.

Initiative here must rest with the United States since the present state of public opinion in Western Germany makes it impossible for any democratically-elected government in Bonn to appear more yielding than its allies on this issue. Former inhabitants of the territory east of the Oder-Neisse rivers are an influential sector of the West German electorate, and this alone means that it would be politically suicidal for the government to move on its own to give formal recognition of the Oder-Neisse line. These "expellees" claim the human and moral right to return to the homes from which they were expelled (at Soviet initiative, with American and British approval) in the wake of the Second World War, and then to decide whether their homeland shall again become a part of Germany. But the present Polish inhabitants of these territories (between the Oder-Neisse and the 1939 Polish Western boundaries) were also expelled from the 1939 Polish Eastern Territories, which the Soviets will not return to Poland. And, as one always hears in Warsaw, Poland cannot exist as a nation on wheels. Besides, the Poles have largely rebuilt and fully resettled these territories. In point of fact, the present frontier cannot be changed in the foreseeable future except by force. This would mean a general war, probably a thermonuclear one. It therefore follows that the present Oder-Neisse frontier is here to stay.

The Polish Communist régime, with the full encouragement of the Soviets, has been taking political advantage of the existing legal ambiguity surrounding the boundary question. It has concealed from the Polish people the profound changes in West German society, the democratic development in the Federal Republic and above all the Europeanization of Western Germany. Communist circles cynically equate Adenauer with Hitler. They fan the sense of insecurity among the Polish settlers in the former German territories in order to achieve some degree of popular support for themselves. The occasional--and regrettable--presence of former high Nazis in important positions in West Germany is always mentioned, while the trial and sentencing of German war criminals by West German courts is ignored. All of this has a clear political purpose: to portray the Communist régime as the protector of the Polish people against West German revanchism and the Soviet Union as Poland's indispensable ally.

Practically every Pole suffered personally under the Nazi occupation, and most Poles seriously fear both that the Germans will again use force against them and that the United States will support or at least tolerate it. Thoughtful Poles who are aware that they need not fear this at present fear something else: that a reunified Germany might some day apply political and economic pressure on Poland, and might do so with American (and maybe even Soviet) tolerance and perhaps encouragement. In other words, they fear that Poland, a minor power, will once again have its frontier decided under foreign pressure.

This fear, unreal as it now seems, might some day have some basis, and American moves to allay it would also go far toward diminishing Polish fears that Germany will resort to force. A major ally of the United States and West Germany, General de Gaulle, leader of a country with historic ties to Poland, has already stated that in his view the Oder-Neisse line is not subject to change. Authoritative persons in Great Britain have said more or less the same. Although the reaction of democratic German leaders in both cases was restrained, it does not follow that their reaction to a similar American step would be the same, since America is West Germany's major ally.

What are the implications of these facts for American policy? A formal recognition by the United States of the present Oder-Neisse frontier may not be feasible at the present time, since in international law it would involve either recognition of the boundary of a state which does not exist--namely, a reunified Germany (to the establishment of which we are committed)--or of the boundary of East Germany, which we do not recognize. Politically it would be a gamble. To calculate the risk of losses to us in West Germany as opposed to gains in Poland is not possible; a good case could be made that the risks are too great to be acceptable. This being so, two alternatives present themselves: to support West German efforts to revise the boundary in favor of Germany, or to maintain the present policy of non-commitment pending a peace treaty with a reunited Germany.

The first is undesirable, since it involves a policy objective which is impossible to achieve without force. Politically, it would throw any government of Poland (and Czechoslovakia) permanently into alliance with any government in Moscow and destroy the great reservoir of friendship for us in those countries. Its moral justification would seem dubious, and it would raise a serious problem in our domestic politics. The second, the present policy of vague non-commitment, gives us the worst posture on all sides: it does not help us much in West Germany, it gravely weakens our position in Poland, and it gives the Russian and Polish Communists an effective means for keeping alive Polish fears of a resurgent Germany and doubts as to whether we may not support German interests on the boundary issue.

As always with such problems, there is no perfect solution, but there nevertheless is something which it is possible to do--namely, reduce Polish popular fears of German-inspired revision of the boundary (which will not in fact occur) and thus diminish Communist influence in Poland and increase Western influence, specifically our own. Therefore the United States should impress upon West German public opinion that the reunification of Germany is impossible without major changes in Polish-Soviet relations. From this point of view a change in the American posture on the Oder-Neisse line could be viewed as favoring long-range German interests.

This is a vitally important point, and one not fully appreciated in Germany or the United States. Until German-Polish differences have been resolved a completely united Europe is impossible; the continuance of them is bound to be reflected in unsatisfactory relations between Germany and its western neighbors. Since Bonn has already formally committed itself not to use force toward Poland, the United States, both alone and also as a member of NATO, should endorse this West German commitment, pledge itself to resist any change in it, and commit itself to having this pledge included in a future German peace treaty. Both countries and NATO should also formally agree that in any future negotiations on a German peace treaty Poland will not be compelled or pressured to accept any change in the existing Oder-Neisse frontier which it feels contrary to its basic national interests. As a gesture indicating that the United States neither expects nor favors any change in the present frontier, even though this may not now be formally stated, we should now consider opening a consulate either in Szczecin or Wroclaw.

The Oder-Neisse question, of course, is not the only issue in U.S. policy toward Poland. American economic aid should be maintained and probably increased, and negotiations undertaken to find some mutually acceptable way for the United States to put its by now very large counterpart funds to work in ways which will benefit the Polish people. The construction of a National Reference Library and Archives in Warsaw might be a desirable project. Cultural exchanges with Poland should be expanded, particularly those under American foundation auspices, and under the present conditions whereby Polish recipients are not to be chosen solely by the Warsaw government. Technical and material assistance might well be given by the United States toward the modernization of Polish agriculture. All of the above is predicated on the expectation that the present Polish situation will not drastically change for the worse.

Czechoslovakia is a Western industrialized country with a neo-Stalinist political régime which enjoys considerable domestic stability. The Czechs are anti-German; they were traditionally pro-Russian but may now be less so. The Slovaks are Catholics, increasingly industrialized, generally anti-Czech, more anti-Communist and less anti-German than the Czechs. The Czechs have the same fears as the Poles do of the Germans, especially since the claims of some of the Sudeten expellee organizations in West Germany bring back memories of Munich and the Nazi destruction of the state of Czechoslovakia. Fortunately, both Washington and Bonn endorse the 1937 German-Czech boundary. What causes Czech uneasiness, however, is the frequently reiterated claim of some Sudeten leaders that their ethnic group should be free not only to return to their former territory but also to determine which nation it ought to belong to. While neither Bonn nor Washington has associated itself with such claims, it would be desirable from the American viewpoint to have it made clear that these do not represent official American or West German policy.

It is very desirable to reëstablish traditional Czechoslovak links with France and America, initially by action in the cultural field. In view of Czechoslovakia's increasing role in technical aid to underdeveloped areas, we should extend to Prague the offer we have already made to Moscow to join the West in multilateral economic development plans sponsored by the United Nations. Here as elsewhere, anything which tends to dilute the Marxist-Leninist image of essentially antagonistic patterns of world change is to the good.

Rumania and Bulgaria. Both these Balkan countries are primarily agrarian, with limited democratic traditions. To Rumania, France and Germany were historic friends and allies; Bulgaria's friends were Germany and Russia. The Rumanians are anti-Russian and anti-Hungarian; the Bulgarians, pro-Russian by tradition, are anti-Jugoslav and anti-Greek. Though Rumania has often been ridiculed in the West as effete and corrupt, the most remarkable reverberations of the Hungarian Revolution were there; if that revolution had not been promptly crushed, Rumania might well have been the next country to revolt. At present, the Rumanian and Bulgarian Communist leaderships are stable and particularly repressive. Short of some new divisive force (such as a Soviet-Jugoslav rapprochement arising out of the Sino-Soviet dispute), rapid or drastic internal change seems unlikely. Nevertheless, it is a welcome sign that the United States recently concluded a cultural exchange agreement with Rumania and has reëstablished diplomatic relations with Bulgaria after a lapse of more than a decade. The intensification of cultural relations offers the best available avenue for influencing the outlook of the ruling élites in these countries, making them realize that socio-economic change throughout the world is an organic and evolutionary process, inadequately encompassed by the dichotomic categories of Marxism-Leninism. In some ways, a stronger case can be made for economic aid to Rumania and Bulgaria than for any other Eastern European country except Poland--since Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany are industrialized and relatively prosperous, and Hungary is a special political case. Bulgaria and Rumania are still impoverished, underdeveloped societies; their people are profoundly aware of their lot, and increasingly impatient. American or perhaps preferably German offers to assist Bulgarian and Rumanian economic development might well be made, if for no other reason than to help the Rumanians and Bulgarians to squeeze more aid out of Moscow.

Hungary, Albania and East Germany. The régimes of these three countries are unstable and they therefore see danger in relaxation at home and in increased contacts with the West.

The Hungarian régime steers a middle course between revisionism on the one hand and neo-Stalinism on the other. The presence of Cardinal Mindszenty in the American Legation, the continued incarceration of political prisoners, indeed, our duty not to forget the Hungarian Revolution, create special problems in our relations with Budapest. Should it prove possible to normalize them in such a way as to be of help to the Hungarian people (through increased contacts with the West and some alleviation of the present secret police terror), it might well be in our interest to send our Minister back to Budapest. One prerequisite should be the release of Hungarians still in prison for their participation in the revolution. Furthermore, West Germany in those circumstances might consider extending economic aid to the Hungarians, and the West in general might increase cultural contacts with them. However, as long as the Soviet Union makes capital out of posing as an anti-colonial power we should retain the Hungarian issue on the United Nations agenda.

Albania is Stalinist at home, pro-Chinese and anti-Jugoslav abroad. The United States has no diplomatic relations with Tirana, and there is little likelihood that they can soon be resumed. The Hoxha régime has claimed that a joint Jugoslav-Greek-Italian-American conspiracy aims at the partition of the country. The United States should make it clear, through expanded broadcasts to that country, that this charge is a figment of Hoxha's imagination, devised to conceal the reality of an unsuccessful Soviet attempt last summer to overthrow him. Our information about Albania and our analysis of conditions there are inadequate, and steps should be taken to improve them.

The Ulbricht régime in East Berlin, composed of Stalinist Quislings, rules on Soviet behalf one-third of Germany. Since East Germany is being increasingly depopulated by the mass flight to the West and since his régime is hated and highly unstable, Ulbricht constantly presses Moscow to provoke a crisis over Berlin. The Bonn government feels strongly that the Western powers should take no steps which would appear to recognize the Ulbricht régime as legitimate; the United States is of the same view. Although the status quo is far from satisfactory, it is the best to be had, and it must be maintained. It is worth noting that the Soviet Union, while rejecting the so-called "two Chinas" policy, demands that we recognize the eastern part of Germany under its military occupation as a bona fide state.)


The statement is often made that conditions in Eastern Europe depend largely on the status of American-Soviet relations. However, this is affected directly, on the one hand, by the Soviet insistence on simply treating the area as a satellite region, and, on the other, by Soviet fears that the United States rejects the status quo and wants to transform the region into an anti-Soviet, perhaps German-dominated, Western outpost. A policy of peaceful engagement would deny either that Eastern Europe is a satellite region or that we plot to make it a Western outpost. In the long run, a gradual change in Eastern Europe which neither challenges Soviet security nor abandons the area to the Soviets, may also help to improve American-Soviet relations.

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