In the run-up to the Iraq war, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz liked to draw analogies to the overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. He acknowledged that the United States had not invaded Romania; with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev benignly looking on (and holding back Soviet troops), Romanians had liberated themselves.
But he, like many Americans, was attracted to the example of a country where a seemingly all-powerful dictator was deposed - and the country didn’t come apart. In fact, it became a democracy, an economic growth story and a member of the EU and NATO.
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Ceausescu’s fall, which occurred on Dec. 22, 1989, it’s worth thinking about the lessons of Romania’s remarkable success story that are applicable to America’s foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
First, America must be strong. Yes, militarily, but also economically and morally. No onewants to emulate - or ally itself with - a country that is unable to protect itself from its enemies, provide a good life for its own people or hold its head high on Judgment Day.
Like individuals, nations want to identify with winners. In 1989, Romanians saw America and Western Europe as militarily strong, economically prosperous and morally admirable. Not perfect, but better than the Soviet world.
Second, nationalism usually trumps ideology. In America, the Cold War was the “Free World versus Communism.” In Romania, it was”Russia (Soviet Union) versus us (Romania).”
As happened in Vietnam, Americans - whose national myth is grounded in ideology (democracy and freedom) rather than ethnicity - underrate the power of nationalism in motivating other peoples. Italians believe in democracy (and value freedom - even from speed limits) as much as Americans. But they define their country not by its political system but by its history, culture and language. That’s the norm in the world.
Third, nation building and democracy promotion are not the same thing. Unlike Afghanistan, the post-revolution government in Romania had more than enough capability to govern across the country. If anything, its agencies - including its security services - had too much power, in the view of many Romanians.
And unlike Iraq, where firing the foot soldiers of Saddam Hussein’s regime was a top U.S. priority, former communists have remained powerful in Romania to this day. In the past two decades, democracy needed to be built, but not a new national government.
Fourth, kitchen table issues count. If 40 years of communism had made ordinary Romanians more prosperous, the politics of 1989 in Romania - and across Eastern Europe - would have been different.
Just look at Russia over the past two decades. Economic decline in the 1990s, associated with end of the Soviet Union and close relations with the United States, drove Russia away from the West. Economic growth in the last decade under Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic strategy (and high oil prices) drove it further away.
Fifth, we need a clear and attractive strategy for making democracy a winner for countries moving away from dictatorship. Wherever we went in Romania, even in recent years, we would hear Romanians say, with a smile, “We’ve been waiting for the Americans.” Partly they’re talking about history.
At the end of World War II, when communism came to Romania in Russian tanks, their parents looked to the skies in vain for American and British planes coming to offset the Russian “liberation” from the Axis. By 1989, it meant they were anxious to rejoin the West. Their enthusiasm to join NATO and the EU was the strongest in Eastern Europe.
NATO and the EU expansion were the most important tools for success in the past 20 years in Central and Eastern Europe. Some see NATO as an outdated talk shop and the EU as nothing more than a glorified free-trade zone. But that’s not how those institutions are seen in Romania.
What can we do with these lessons of Romania’s revolution?
It’s going to be complicated, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Twenty years after 1989, America is still militarily strong, but the great recession of 2008-09 has weakened our economic strength. President Obama is working to restore our moral leadership, but the policies of the past decade were not helpful.
The real challenge for those who want to use the lessons of 1989 as a model for democratic progress elsewhere comes down this: What is the endgame? Romania and the rest of the former Soviet satellites weren’t special cases because they alone value democracy. That is a universal value. But they were a special case in that the United States and its Western European allies had something significant and permanent to offer them - membership in the EU and NATO. Unlike so many Iraqis and Afghans, Romanians were not counting the months until we left. They want us to remain their allies and partners - forever.
Jim Rosapepe is a former U.S. ambassador to Romania. Sheilah Kast is a former ABC News correspondent who reported from Moscow, Tbilisi and Eastern Europe on the post-communist transition. They are co-authors of “Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy” (Bancroft Press, 2009).