Europe in Flux: An Unusual Journey

I have just returned to Helsinki, my current home base, from a ten-day trip with the somewhat unusual itinerary of Estonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Austria. The four small countries vary widely in virtually every way -- from their topographies to their histories -- but they share one characteristic of contemporary Europe: a struggle to adapt to rapid and wrenching change. This is truly a continent in flux.

My journey began in Tallinn where I participated in the annual Lennart Meri Conference, organized by Estonia's International Centre for Defence and Security. The conference, now in its tenth year, has become the gold standard for such events, bringing together senior political figures, policymakers, and journalists from the Nordic-Baltic area, Russia, Western Europe, the United States, and a few from the Middle East and Asia. A panoply of issues was on the agenda, with three having special emphasis: Russia's ongoing aggressiveness toward its Baltic neighbors; the European Union's simultaneous attempts to cope with a possible Grexit and/or Brexit, and the overwhelming challenge of mass migration; and a morbid fascination with the U.S. presidential candidacy of Donald Trump and its implications for transatlantic relations.

Estonia ranks as perhaps the biggest success story of post-communist Europe. Proving E.F. Schumacher's famous dictum that "small is beautiful," the little land of 1.3 million has weathered the Great Recession, is in the forefront of the digital economy, and is making steady, if slow, progress in integrating its ethnic Russian minority, which comprises one-quarter of the population. I took part in a pre-conference excursion to Narva, Estonia's easternmost city where Russian speakers make up the overwhelming majority of the population. The border there could not be more dramatic. Two medieval castles face each other across a narrow river - Narva on the Estonian bank, Ivangorod on the Russian. Since Russia's capture of Crimea in 2014 by "little, green men" wearing no identifying insignias, there has been much speculation that Narva might be the next target of the Kremlin's hybrid warfare. But in a meeting in Narva, and later at the conference in Tallinn, local experts, while fully expecting Russian provocations against the West to continue elsewhere, downplayed the likelihood of a lightning "grab Narva" scenario. In that context, there was near-unanimous sentiment at Lennart Meri in favor of increasing the rotational or permanent presence of U.S. and European NATO forces in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

Flying between small European countries, especially to the Balkans, can be trying. To get to Sarajevo from Tallinn in one day, I had to change planes in Frankfurt and then Vienna. Three flights and nearly nine hours later I made it to the charming capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Having experienced Sarajevo twenty years ago at its war-ravaged worst, I marveled at new hotels (including two Marriotts) and sleek malls, only a short walk away from Baščaršija, the old Ottoman Quarter with its narrow, cobblestone streets and graceful mosques.

I went to Sarajevo to chair a session of a conference on political, judicial, and economic reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, co-sponsored by my Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and the America-Bosnia Foundation. U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. was the patron of the event and sent a detailed letter to participants, demonstrating his deep knowledge of the region. I came away from the conference thinking of the old "two steps forward, one step back" metaphor. After having frittered away a decade mired in corruption and endless inter-ethnic and intra-elite squabbling, Bosnia - with prodding from the U.S. and EU -- does finally seem to have awakened to the urgent necessity to change its ways. Yet after hopeful declarations and concrete proposals for reform, one still occasionally heard provincial, ethnocentric re-fighting of past electoral battles. With enlightened political and corporate leadership and the involvement of civil society, Bosnia could show Europe the way to multi-religious cooperation. The jury is still very much out.

Getting to Podgorica made my aerial hopscotching to Sarajevo look simple. Rather than flying back north to Vienna and then doing a 180-degree reversal, I opted to drive to Montenegro. This road between two European capital cities, Sarajevo and Podgorica, is nothing short of amazing in both positive and negative ways. The 150-mile route traverses one of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes on the continent, including breathtakingly deep canyons and snow-capped mountains. Incredibly, however, the last ten miles on the Bosnian side of the border is rutted, unpaved gravel -- in stretches narrower than my driveway in Virginia -- with a thousand-foot drop-off on one side. My driver and I survived.

The purposes of the second half of my trip, in Podgorica and Vienna, were to speak on the U.S. presidential campaign and to give radio and newspaper interviews on that topic and on Balkan and transatlantic affairs. The Montenegrin capital was festooned with red and gold banners celebrating the tenth anniversary of the independence of the Connecticut-size country of 625,000 souls. Only recently a sleepy backwater, Podgorica in the last decade has blossomed. The national economy may still be challenged and society polarized along self-identified ethnic lines (Montenegrins, Slavic Muslims, and Albanians on one side; Serbs on the other), but the overall impression is a vibrant one. Under the leadership of long-serving Prime Minister Milo Djukanović, Montenegro is poised to become the 29th member of NATO, thereby guaranteeing its borders and solidifying its Euro-Atlantic orientation.

My speech on the U.S. presidential campaign was held at the "American Corner," a U.S. Embassy facility in Podgorica's Cultural Center. Full disclosure: I excoriated Donald Trump. The audience reaction, however, exceeded my criticism. Despite my attempt to elucidate social, economic, technological, and even psychological reasons for Trump's success in winning the Republican nomination, a completely satisfactory explanation remained elusive, both to me and to my Montenegrin listeners, who included Foreign Minister Igor Lukšić, a candidate to succeed Ban Ki Moon as UN Secretary-General. Montenegrins - and two days later, Austrians - expressed amazement and disgust at Trump's behavior and were outspoken in their fear that a Trump presidency would have immediate, negative effects in Europe and prove extremely damaging to America's influence in the world.

My speech at the renowned Bruno Kreisky Forum in Vienna occurred only three days before the run-off round of Austria's own presidential election, in which Alexander Van der Bellen, candidate of the Green Party, defeated extreme right-winger Norbert Hofer by the narrowest of margins. Although a frequent visitor to Vienna, I remain somewhat puzzled by the widespread popular alienation in what is surely one of the world's most attractive and prosperous cities. Sophisticated Austrian friends chalk it up to "complaining as the national pastime," but undoubtedly the discontent is more deeply grounded, with resentment against the massive influx of refugees currently the chief factor.

My trip brought home the multifaceted, simultaneous problems that even the smallest Western democracies face. From poor Balkan countries like Bosnia and Montenegro, to middle-income Estonia, to extremely wealthy Austria - all four are grappling with changing economic situations, domestic ethnic and religious tensions, and external challenges (Russia to Estonia, the volume of refugees to Austria, Islamist activism to Bosnia, and Russian-inspired opposition to NATO in Montenegro). Given adequate time to adjust, all four could probably cope. Time, however, is a luxury of the last century. What is clear is that despite chronic anti-Americanism in some quarters, most of Europe still looks to the United States for support, even leadership, and is profoundly concerned about the possibility of an uninformed America-Firster occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come January 2017.

Michael Haltzel, former foreign policy advisor to Vice President (then-Senator) Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is Visiting Senior Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University SAIS.