Great Power Populism, COVID-19, & Missing Leadership, with Damjan Krnjević Mišković & Nikolas Gvosdev
May 12, 2020
ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.
This week's podcast is with Damjan Krnjević-Mišković & Nikolas Gvosdev. Damjan is director of policy research and publications at Azerbaijan's ADA University, having taken a leave of absence as executive director of the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD). He is also editor of Horizons: Journal of International Relations and Sustainable Development. Nick is a senior fellow at Carnegie Council, director of the US Global Engagement program, and a professor of national security affairs at U.S. Naval War College.
The three of us spoke about an excellent article that Damjan and Nick recently wrote for The National Interest, entitled "Great Power Populism." We discussed what that term means, the effect of the pandemic on great power rivalries, whether we’re headed towards a global conflict, and how and if democratic leaders can stop some of these worrying trends.
For a lot more on this subject, including blog posts and podcasts featuring Nick, you can go to carnegiecouncil.org.
But for now, calling in from Newport, Rhode Island and Baku, Azerbaijan, here's my talk with Damjan Krnjević-Mišković & Nikolas Gvosdev.
Damjan and Nick, thank you so much for getting on this call. It should be a really interesting conversation.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Happy to be here.
DAMJAN KRNJEVIĆ-MIŠKOVIĆ: Glad to be here.
ALEX WOODSON: Damjan, since you're the guest of the Carnegie Council today, we'll start with you. We're talking about your article for The National Interest, "Great-Power Populism," so let's start with what great-power populism is. How would you define that for someone who may not have heard that term before?
DAMJAN KRNJEVIĆ-MIŠKOVIĆ: I think the first thing we need to do is to go back and talk about the fact that populism has been around for thousands of years. Like tyranny, it's a "danger coeval with political life." This is a quote by Leo Strauss, and I think it is absolutely on-point. It's in a way inherent to human nature.
I want to make a quick jump back into political philosophy. If the human soul, and if every regime is—you can make a tripartite division between logos (reason), thumos (spiritedness), and epithumia (the appetitive part). Populism is one of the possibilities when thumos and especially epithumia, so the appetitive part, reigns over the other two, especially over logos.
This is a particular characteristic of regime types that do include democracy. If you look at the contemporary writings of people like Jan-Werner Müller or especially Shawn Rosenberg, who is at UC-Irvine if I'm not mistaken and is either a clinical psychologist or some kind of psychologist, but he teaches political science. He has been very, very persistent in making the argument that there is a particularly strong and growing correlation between democracy and populism. He has a very complicated and—to me, at least—persuasive argument about this. I would invite people to go look at some of the stuff he has written on this.
But Rosenberg's basic point is that an illiberal approach is inherently more attractive to most people than a complex or liberal approach to citizenship because it simplifies things and because it feeds on cleavages. When you listen to someone who makes a populist argument he is always pointing the finger at the great "other" as the source of problems and difficulties.
Rosenberg seems to make the argument that at least in domestic politics the tipping point comes when elites, which tend to be a moderating force, figure out that being immoderate—which comes back to epithumia—can be a path to power. It's a way of dealing with the loss of control in terms of the monopoly of access to information that comes through the rise of mass communication, the Internet, and all this other stuff. More freedom, more equality, more democracy, more confusion, and then you get the false remedy of populism.
What does this have to do with great-power populism? In other words, the argument that Nick and I made in the article that just came out in The National Interest is, what happens when you have an intersection of populism in a domestic context with great-power competition in the international arena? Our point is that it's not accidental, that there is a correlation to this. They are not separate phenomenon.
Experts, scholars, and analysts tend to look at these two phenomena separately. What we're saying is that there really is some connection between the two, and this connection is getting to be stronger and closer but also more worrisome the closer we have gotten to the present and as we project into the future.
We find ourselves in an international environment reminiscent of a condition of a nervous breakdown. This has been the case for some time, and we can talk about the specifics, fine, but we have rivalries that are fueled by distrust in an amorphous international community, and these rivalries become more acute when populism gets into the mixture. So great-power populism is not driven by withdrawal from the international system or the international community—and we can talk about what that actually means—but by revisiting, revising, reforming, or revolutionizing the international system with the emphasis on zero-sum again, "grabbing your fair share," and not really trying to cooperate on any issues but trying to maximize benefits for yourself, your regime, your country, your system, or your government.
It's really a rejection of globalization. It's in essence the idea that the more great powers become populists in the way that they look at their external relations the more likely it is that you're going to see really the end of globalization, which is predicated on open or almost no borders on free trade, on global supply chains, and on it not really mattering where a product or service comes from. These are all things that do not have at least the perception of primacy or as an organizing principle as they did for a while, at least from the fall of the Berlin Wall until let's say 2008. This is pre-Trump, this is pre-COVID-19, but I think there have been a number of accelerating factors that have made this a new state of reality in the international system, and I think this is something that is going to become much more of a problem and an issue than people seem to realize.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Let me piggyback on that last comment because I think it's important for people to understand what Damjan just said about this being pre-Trump and pre-COVID-19 because you have a tendency right now—it was certainly true before COVID-19 to say, "Well, this is a phenomenon of Donald Trump, and when Donald Trump leaves the political scene, everything snaps back," or, "Well, this is now a product of the pandemic, but once we have herd immunity and/or a vaccine, then everything goes back." I think our point is to say that these are things that have been building up for a while; this is a cycle that has been developing.
As Damjan said, what we were interested in looking at was the intersection of these two cycles, the domestic populist cycle occurring—and populism, by the way, both of the left and of the right. There are both left- and right-wing variants of populism, but they share at the core in domestic politics this sense of people being aggrieved—someone else is at fault, I'm not getting what I deserve—usually directed at a faceless elite that somehow is disconnected from me and that is not taking my interests into account, and then bringing that into the context of an international system where all the aspirational rhetoric about international community and world without borders and "We're all in this together" runs up against people and governments saying, "No, there are winners and losers."
The international system is still somewhat zero-sum. It doesn't always mean that if you win, I lose, but there are variants. In the West, particularly in the United States—and Donald Trump tapped into this, and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders in both 2016 and 2020—that we are at the losing end, we are doing so much in security and trade, and others are benefiting, and we aren't, and we need to renegotiate. Then with a number of the rising powers to say that the order as it's configured was configured at a time when we had less say and now we want more say, and so we want to renegotiate and to revise. And these two trend lines are intersecting.
Again, the pandemic hasn't created this, but it is accelerating it as people discover that borders matter; how quickly borders went back up inside the European Union, how quickly borders went back up between countries, how quickly the sense of "There's a finite supply of medical equipment, and we need to keep what we have for us and maybe not share it."
We had a discussion at the Carnegie Council several weeks ago about the erosion of solidarity. So much of this post-Berlin Wall world that Damjan describes depends upon at least the myth of solidarity, that what happens in one country affects us, and your problems are our problems, and therefore we are all in this together. That's the basis of this notion of an international community. Community implies that your problems are my problems, your concerns are my concerns.
We perhaps are reverting back to international society, which is that we're all part of a system, but where countries, governments, and populations say, "Your problems aren't my problems," or, "We all have a problem, but you're hurt by this problem more than I am, and maybe I'm not going to assist you."
I think the last point that Damjan said that we should stress is that these sentiments have always been present. What has changed over the last decade is that political elites in a variety of countries have learned how to tap into these sentiments as a way to gain power. In the American context the two main political parties from 1989 through the early 2010s tamped these sentiments down. What has happened since then is that political figures have realized that appealing to populism, appealing to this sense of "the international order is unfair" is a pathway forward. The United States, Britain, France, Italy, and Turkey, and even in more authoritarian systems this type of approach resonates, in Russia, China, and elsewhere. Again, we see this as not a passing phenomenon but as something which has deeper roots.
ALEX WOODSON: That's a terrific overview of the term, adding a few specifics.
One thing I would like to expand on a little bit—and Nick, you mentioned this a bit, talking about COVID-19 and where we are now with the pandemic.
Speaking about the COVID-19 pandemic, where are we now with great-power populism, and where might we be? I know this is a very hard time to predict, but if you look at the great powers, they're all dealing with this pandemic in a major way. Obviously, the United States has a huge issue, Western Europe does too, I just saw that the numbers are exploding in Russia, and China is obviously in a very different position. The pandemic started there, but they seem to have it under control as far as we can see, at least through the media reports we're getting. So where are we right now with great-power populism specifically with all these great powers dealing with this pandemic?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think it is important to point out that there are different ways in which we can respond to the pandemic. On the one hand, Bill Gates issued his letter a few weeks ago, where he cast this very much in terms of "This is a world war; all of humanity is united together against this common enemy," and it implies that there is one team, one fight, and that's how this is going to move forward. That's one way of looking at this. You can try to say this is a global struggle, and therefore the countries of the world ought to unite in order to combat this scourge.
But there's another equally valid approach. I'm not endorsing it or not-endorsing it, but I'm simply saying that it's an option, which is to say, "We're all going to take damage from this, but some of us are going to be damaged more than others."
For example, you noted the case of Russia. In the West we have identified Russia as a great-power competitor. We talk about malign Russian influence in the international system. If the pandemic weakens the basis of the Russian government, if it creates problems for Vladimir Putin, do we necessarily help Russia through the pandemic, or do we say, "Let's let the pandemic weaken the Russian system"? That's how a great-power populist might look at this, not through the eyes of an internationalist like Bill Gates saying, "COVID-19 anywhere is a problem for everyone," but saying, "COVID-19 in some places might be a human tragedy, but perhaps there is a great-power advantage."
China, in how it has approached this crisis, is looking for ways in which it can take the problems that the pandemic has created either to gain new footholds, say, in Europe, to burnish its reputation internationally, and to perhaps push back on U.S. trade pressure. So again, does China necessarily want to see the United States come out intact from this? It might be happy to have the COVID-19 pandemic take the United States down a couple of pegs in terms of how the international balance of power is arrayed.
The pandemic becomes one more point in this great-power struggle for influence and for position, just as climate change does, trade, and oil and energy prices. All of these become ways in which countries can either move up the ladder or take opponents down the ladder, and it works against this idea of the borderless world and what happens to you impacts me.
If you were to go right now, I think, to Capitol Hill and say, "We can send a great deal of medical aid to Russia, and it's going to save lives, but the end result is that Vladimir Putin is going to strengthen his hold on power and strengthen his position in the Eurasian space," I think you would find a number of members of Congress who would say, "Humanitarian tragedy is bad, but if the pandemic is going to create conditions in Russia for a potential color revolution, we shouldn't stand in the way."
Against the Gates view of "one world, one fight," there is the view of "This is a problem that affects the world," but people are still interpreting it through the lens of their national interest.
ALEX WOODSON: Damjan, do you want to add to that?
DAMJAN KRNJEVIĆ-MIŠKOVIĆ: Yes, I do. I think the whole pandemic, the era that we're in now or the moment in time that we're in now highlights the fact that we find ourselves in a situation in which no one wants to claim global leadership anymore.
Yesterday I was involved in a conversation that featured amongst others Amina Mohammed, who is the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, and she put it in a very pithy way, so I'm going to quote her—I think it was a public conversation; if it isn't, what can I do?—This is what she said: "Where there's leadership, there is not the power to flex it. Where there is power, there is a lack of leadership."
I think this brings us to the conclusion that this is the first time in decades, since 1945, that America hasn't bothered to try to lead in any major serious crisis of the first or probably even the second order. That's a significant change, I think. It's a bellwether, and you can't just snap back. If Biden wins in a couple of months, it's not going to be particularly easy to just go back to the pre-Trumpian period.
But it also brings us to looking at how the European Union reacted to this. The European Union has always portrayed itself as the soft power par excellence in the world. They haven't done particularly well in this crisis. It took them a month or more to come together to figure out what they were going to do. The European Union actually has zero jurisdiction in healthcare, and obviously this is amongst other things a crisis of health care.
There was no institutional coordination, there was no plan for institutional coordination. Solidarity went out the window. The Italians amongst others were begging for money for immediate relief. It may be coming. Only Romania, for instance, bothered to send doctors to any other EU Member State. If you think about it, everybody could have done more.
Why am I emphasizing America and the European Union? Because these were the only two—America as a country and the European Union as a hybrid political form—entities that genuinely made a serious claim to global leadership since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There has been a significant failure by both of these in the context of COVID-19, and I would argue previously to continue to grasp with a firm and ethical hand the mantle of global leadership.
I looked up before we started talking the statement of values of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, which is obviously the sponsor of this podcast. There is a list here of values, and all of these values are anti-great-power populism values, if I can put it that way.
ALEX WOODSON: I think I agree with that.
DAMJAN KRNJEVIĆ-MIŠKOVIĆ: I'll just go through a couple of them so that we can get a flavor, and then I want to quickly talk about trust, which is fundamental to this conversation, it seems to me.
Value number one, ongoing commitment to ethical behavior—out the window; personal and professional integrity seems to be out the window; respect for differences—gone; pursuit of intellectual excellence—in some places more than others out the window; innovation and resourcefulness—also not optimal in present times; diversity and inclusiveness—again in some parts of the world on the way out; accountability and transparency—hard to say that that's being upheld; and loyalty to mission—I'm not clear what that means in this context, but certainly dedication to the values that used to underpin the international system, however you understood it to be, in the past couple of decades is not particularly a significant factor in the decision-making that is being taken in the way that leaders are formulating their plans in this time and, Nick and I would argue, prior to the onset of COVID-19 in the context of great-power politics.
But again, this brings us to the question of trust, especially in times of crises. In politics trust is built on at least two foundations. First, citizens must believe that their governments have the expertise, the technical knowledge, the capacity, and the impartiality to make the best available judgments, and this is why bureaucratic meritocracy is so important.
Second, trust is about top leaders, and this comes to the heart of the matter. Which leaders today enjoy high levels of trust, not so much in their own countries but in the context of great-power politics? Who enjoys trust internationally? Not many. And when you don't have trust, you look to pragmatic signs of assistance. This is where China comes in.
The initial reaction by local Chinese officials in Wuhan was tragically and maybe criminally negligent, but when they got over that initial stage the draconian measures that they adopted against their own population prevented, probably, the pandemic from turning into a 21st-century version of the medieval plague.
China it seems to me is the only great populist power that has taken to heart the famous quote that Rahm Emanuel and others have said: "You never really want a serious crisis to go to waste." That again is part of this accelerating trend that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: One of the things about trust which I want to continue on is the basis for trust in both domestic systems and then across the international system, because one of the things that Freedom House in its reports for this year is very stark in reporting is that we're in an era of democratic recession. They talk about globally it's 14 years now of democratic decline in their Nations In Transit report, which looks at a group of countries in Central and Eastern Europe and across the Eurasian space. Their conclusion is that there are now fewer democracies in this part of the world than at any time since they started the report in 1995.
We are seeing that trust in institutions and trust in rules is breaking down. When that happens people will turn and either trust no one, or they're going to trust leaders. Leaders that then say, "We need more power, we need to be exempted from checks and balances in order to get the job done," become more likely.
We can add a third element to this discussion moving forward. Our starting point was to say, "What happens when domestic populism feeds into and feeds from great-power competition?" Now perhaps a third element moving forward is that we are in an era of global democratic recession, that any of the optimism from 1989—"We're on the verge of a new world; power politics is a thing of the past"; Secretary of State John Kerry's pronouncements in the 2010s about, "We live in the world of the 21st century, not the 19th century"—is really going by the wayside.
Moving forward the question is, what sort of leaders are we looking for? What sort of leaders can emerge that will have trust both from their populations and then can become or be seen as global leaders?
What's interesting is that people often say, "Well, the leader of the free world is Chancellor Angela Merkel," that Germany has to pick up some of this, but of course Germany's response during the COVID-19 crisis in terms of European solidarity wasn't particularly exemplary. She is also a lame duck. She's on her way out, and who replaces her at the heart of Europe is not clear.
People then say: "Well, what about Emmanuel Macron? Is he a figure that can move forward?" His problem is that he is not immune from the populist wave inside France. He still largely is a political figure on the force of his own personality rather than a really strong, dedicated party movement, and he could be swept away at some point in elections.
The question then is, does the democratic system produce the types of leaders now that are going to be willing to gain trust but also push back against the populist wave? That I think is an open question, even within the American context. People will say, "Well, a President Joe Biden will be likely to do things differently," except with his rhetoric on China he's trying in some ways to out-Trump Trump. He is making some of the same appeals about competition and decoupling and China is a threat, and so on.
Even if we have an electoral change here—and I think Damjan has already alluded to this—is that once other countries have seen that a significant part of the United States electorate and political system is willing to turn its back on allies and willing to turn its back on institutions, even if Joe Biden says, "Look, we're coming back, we're restoring," you've set the precedent and you've set the idea that the United States has done this once and can do it again. Therefore Europeans and others might say: "We now have to hedge. We have to hedge against the United States. We have to keep ties open to China. We have to keep ties open to Russia. We have to be prepared that the United States is not going to exercise leadership at some point in the future." Does this mean Europe has to consolidate more within itself? A lot of things, I think, are left undecided.
Again, this idea that somehow one election in the United States in November of 2020 is going to magically change all of these trends and return us to 2016 or 2008 or 2000 or 1992 and everything is going to be fine and we're going to move forward, I think is wishful thinking.
DAMJAN KRNJEVIĆ-MIŠKOVIĆ: I want to jump in about Emmanuel Macron. France may or may not be a great power, but there are a number of indications that Macron at least has some populist tendencies. On the other hand, he gave an interview to the Financial Times recently, and he said something that I thought was quite thoughtful actually. He quoted Adam Smith. He talked about economics as a "moral science." There aren't that many leaders, whether they're populist or not, who can make that argument.
The point was that Europe is first a political project and an economic project second, and because it's a political project first there's a fundamental notion of solidarity, and then the economic argument is derivative from the political argument. In that context he talked economics being a moral science.
The problem is that economics may be a moral science, but economics is at the end of the day about having the resources that you need to do the stuff that you want to do, both internally and beyond your own borders. The money that is being spent just to serve as a bridge now, just to prevent fundamental economic collapse—Dark Ages economic collapse—is unprecedented. So you're going to have to keep spending more money for the recovery.
When you think about what that means in terms of the conduct of foreign policy, given that we have great-power populism it's unclear that you're going to follow the logical move, which is to deescalate. If you don't have enough resources at your disposal and you've got all this stuff happening in the world—from Syria to Libya to Afghanistan, you name it, climate change, sustainable development, all these things, some of which require significant multilateral cooperation and probably even heightened multilateral cooperation, which isn't happening—the question is, are leaders in the world going to come together and say, "Okay, we have our differences, and we're not suggesting that we should solve them, but let's just put them on pause while we recover our economies." That would be the logical thing to do, and it would probably be the moral and ethical thing to do. But it's unlikely that that's going to happen.
When COVID-19 goes away or when it's brought under control, all of this other stuff that nobody's talking about because they're focusing on death in the context of their domestic situations because of the pandemic, all of these conflicts are still there. They're still unresolved. There is still not enough cooperation. There is no leadership.
So you're going to have, it seems to me, a situation in the months ahead where the potential for the harnessing of additional resources, whether they're military or economic or whatever, is going to decrease significantly. Yet the belligerence and the rivalries are still going to be there, and that's going to create significantly greater potential for instability and for—I don't know how else to put it—completely random events and a level of unpredictability that no one has seen for a long time.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Alex, something you circulated to us beforehand which I think builds right on this is the question of possible conflict.
ALEX WOODSON: This is what I've been thinking this whole time. When I hear "great-power populism," my mind goes to World War I; it goes to huge conflict between great powers.
It's interesting. You talked about this with Ali Wyne almost a year ago about great-power competition. This was before COVID-19, and it was very much an open question as to where this would lead. I'll just throw that back out.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: People may or may not have seen that very fascinating report from Reuters a few days ago, which is apparently based on a leak from inside China which says that the think tank that's attached to the Chinese Ministry of State Security is essentially saying that China has to prepare for the possibility of an open clash, including a military clash, with the United States. Is this hyping things up?
Leaving that aside, the possibility that as rivalries intensify and as people going through these crises decide that their options are narrowing, are you prepared to push the envelope? Are you prepared to stake claims?
We've already seen that COVID-19 and all of this talk about "one world, one fight" against the pandemic has not led China, for instance, to give up its claims in the South China Sea. It's not inducing the Russians to say: "You know what? Pandemic, so we're going to leave Crimea."
Again, it doesn't mean that a repeat of World War I is on the horizon, and certainly of course the presence of nuclear weapons in this discussion should act—we hope—as a restraining force on unrestrained competition, but the possibility that the edges are going to be areas of friction and you're going to have increased potential for small-scale conflict is something that we have to be prepared for. And again, in a context of not simply great-power competition, but when it is linked to populism, if populations are mobilized into thinking that any kind of backing down or defeat is somehow a negative, particularly against the leadership, then you're going to see incentives not to compromise and not to show a willingness to deescalate, precisely because you're going to fear that this is going to delegitimize you in the eyes of your population. So certainly the possibility for conflict is there.
One of the problems—coming back to the U.S. focus on this—is that the United States for the last 30 years has been very comfortable giving very fuzzy guarantees to lots of countries, and we talked about this in earlier iterations. The United States has come up with a whole list of fuzzy terms which fall short of a binding alliance, unlike say the relationship the United States has with Japan, where we have a treaty ratified by the Senate. It spells out that if Japan is attacked, the United States will respond.
We have a variety of countries around the world where the United States says, "Well, you're kind of like an ally, but you're a friend or you're a partner, and you're really close to us and we really like you," and we often use that term. We even will be promiscuous in our use of the "A" word, the "ally" word, but we don't have the commitment there. When push comes to shove—and, of course, the Ukrainians were the latest to discover that—being called an ally by members of Congress does not actually translate into concrete defense guarantees.
We may see a Russia or China that is willing to test how far the United States and European partners are willing to go. The pandemic might raise, rather than tamping down, conflict which is—not to keep picking on Bill Gates, but it's really his assertion that the pandemic will cause us to lay down our swords and beat them into plowshares so that we can all fight this disease—it may in fact increase the possibility of clashes and of tensions and of probing and seeing how far we can gain advantage. It is something to be concerned about.
We just finished the 100th anniversary of World War I, and I think people breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn't embarked on a new great-power clash, but there's still time.
ALEX WOODSON: Damjan, I want to give you a chance to respond. We're getting a little low on time, so I wanted to throw out one more question, and maybe we can end on this.
You alluded to this a bit before in your answer talking about Emmanuel Macron. It doesn't sound like either of you think that Macron, Merkel, or Biden will be the answer to ending great-power populism, if I can put it in a simple form there. But if there were to be some kind of inspirational leader—from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, or wherever, Brazil—who really gains the trust of the "international community," what could they do to slow this trend of great-power populism? What are some things they need to say, some policies? As you say, the international community is going through a nervous breakdown right now, so what can they do to put that at bay a little bit?
DAMJAN KRNJEVIĆ-MIŠKOVIĆ: I want to start with a discussion of what the international community actually means. In our article, Nick and I talk about how it implies commonly accepted standards and norms, shared approaches, and acceptance of burden-sharing in the name of solidarity. It seems to me that in order for that to happen you need to have the really big players be onboard. It's not enough to have a Macron or whoever ends up taking over from Angela Merkel to try to lead.
You mentioned Brazil. Brazil in many ways is an even greater example of a great-power populist place now, although who knows how long he is going to last.
It's going to be very difficult to reverse this trend at least in a relevant timeframe. I just don't see the European Union—which really does continue to make the claim of being the "soft power of the world"—having the political capacity to do this, again for economic reasons. If Adam Smith is right that economics is a moral science—and I'd like to think that he is—then morality is not enough. You need to have the cash. And there's just not enough cash to be able to do what is going to be required in order to fundamentally put a stop to this trend.
Ian Bremmer talks about the G-Zero world, and that really is the world that we're living in, and it's not going to fundamentally change. To emphasize again what I said earlier, this is going to create the possibility—and in my view the likelihood—of much greater vacillations in terms of where we are in the context of stability. It's going to give non-great-power populists more room to "do damage." Let's put it that way.
In my country, in Serbia, we have a populist who has significant and growing tyrannical tendencies. Nick mentioned these Freedom House reports; Serbia is no longer a "free" country. The Western Balkans generally is not where it was in terms of freedom of the press, electoral freedom, and conditions for the conduct of free and fair elections. It's not even close to where it was a decade ago. It's much, much worse. And some of these countries in the Western Balkans, including Serbia, are official candidate countries for membership in the European Union.
You get the sense that the Europeans are, you can even say, powerless to reverse trends in not even their backyard but on the back porch. It seems that when you put all that together the likelihood that the European Union led by a strong national leader, whoever he or she may be, is not going to be in a particularly strong position to be able to exert the kind of influence and leadership that would be necessary in order to reverse this trend.