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President Traian Băsescu's foreign policy

Ana-Maria TĂNASE

Political science experts have identified, in the analysis of post-Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe-, a very close relationship between social-economic issues (measured in price rises, inflation, unemployment, poverty, future of the children) and the voters' penchant for authoritarian leaders, with an authoritarian rhetoric.

Electoral profiles


Revision of the European Union's social model has had an overwhelming impact on the economic policy of Western states (e.g. the 2010 Agenda in Germany, the pension reform in France, the austerity programme in Austria), which generated a trend of discontent, translating into strikes and social protests of unprecedented scope in this part of Europe. The steep fall in opinion polls of the Raffarrin Cabinet and of President Jacques Chirac, the loss of regional elections by the Social Democratic Party and Gerhard Schroeder were signals that the "radicalism" of the social model is rather "risky" for those in power. It is not unlikely for Jacques Chirac to have seen, in the proposal to ratify the European Constitution through a referendum, a means to at least temporarily rescue his own position by sacrificing the Raffarrin Government.

On the one hand, rejection of the European Constitution in France and The Netherlands was in part triggered by the citizens' discontent with the direct impact that the shift to the European single currency had on their living standards. On the other hand, the Western-European electorate (in France, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Austria) feels ever more "overwhelmed" by the wave of Eastern-European immigrants (the "Polish plumber" syndrome) which threatens their economic security, given the high demand for cheap and skilled labour. In this respect, Western-Europeans' reluctance to the European enlargement process is understandable, and so is their appetite for the anti-immigration, anti-integration rhetoric of nationalist parties.

The United Kingdom, the USA repre-sentative in Europe-, has its specific features. The alliance between Tony Blair and George W. Bush seems to have operated in the spirit of a "historic legacy" of the successful partnership forged by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, during World War II. Tony Blair's success in the elections this spring proved that the British electorate has "rallied" to the American model proposed by Tony Blair in his foreign policy message: less social protection, more security against the terrorist threat. Mention should be made however that UK has not adopted the Euro, and that the social-economic policy of the Tony Blair Cabinet was in stark contrast with the ones practiced in the Union-. Consequently, social-economic issues did not affect the British people's personal security to such an extent as to censure Tony Blair in poll stations.

Unlike Western voters, the electorate in Europe-'s poorer countries, recently accepted as EU Members, but in particular in accession states Romania and Bulgaria, is not so much concerned with the terrorist threat and/or cross-border criminality issues, but rather with the direct effects that the European integration has or will have on their personal incomes.


Rhetoric themes and differences


From these perspectives, related to the policies and the specifics of the public opinion in European states (Eastern or Western), on the one hand, and in the United States, on the other hand, I will venture into drawing a number of distinctions between the two types of rhetoric: the European and the American one.

As far as the types and weight of the tackled themes are concerned, the rhetoric differences reside in:


I. The social-economic area

- In the European rhetoric, an important part is granted to the State, which, through governmental officials, represents the main authority which takes responsibility for generating individual welfare.

- In the American discourse, on the contrary, the social-economic area focuses on the individual and on promotion of his financial autonomy: an individual is in the best position to ensure his own wellbeing and, at the same time, to provide revenues to the State Budget.

II. The international security area is shaped by distinct approaches on big-stick policies.

- The European rhetoric, one of compromise and/or consensus, focuses on negotiations and reward policies, while the relationships with the USA are partnership relations. Issues related to the foreign security policy are mostly handled in relational terms, and heavily rely on references to inter-governmental organisations and trans-Atlantic alliances. In other words, the respective European state does not unilaterally undertake the responsibility of ensuring its citizens' protection and/or of unilaterally guaranteeing the security of a country located within its proximity areas.

- Unlike the European one, the American rhetoric tackles the foreign security issue in a responsible and unilateralist manner, and is built on dichotomist categories. The premises of the rhetoric construction focus either on direct threat, or on negotiations whose goal is not to provide mutual advantages to parties, but to apply sanctions. Throughout its history, the American moralist rhetoric has undergone two types of influences:


l On the one hand, there is the Wilson view on the exceptional nature of the American nation, as the "most privileged nation." By virtue of this exceptionalism, the American foreign policy has always been based on a missionary approach, namely that of promoting and imposing at a global scale its own values, principles and functional-institutional patterns (such as the democratic regime type, human right protection policies, minorities' rights, etc.), as unique, generally-valid reference entities.

l On the other hand, there is the influence of the American isolationism, according to which the USA define themselves as an active agent in a world which is either indifferent, or hostile to the moral requirements represented and promoted by the USA, as a sign of its specificity with respect to any other international political community in the world.

- Beyond "historical influences," the American rhetoric is an individualist, engaged one, with missionary touches. In this case, not only is the USA the only one in a position to ensure American citizens' security and defence against terrorism, but it also has the necessary and sufficient capabilities to promote its model and interventionist policy at a global level.


Rhetoric and image in President Băsescu's foreign policy vision


These are the analysis categories and the theoretical background I will use below, working on President's Băsescu two most recent speeches, one of them delivered in the meeting in Cotroceni with the Romanian Diplomatic Corps on August 30, and the other in the conference on "New Europe. Who's afraid of democratisation?" at the National School of Political and Administrative Sciences, Bucharest.

In the following paragraphs, I will analyse the weight and the approach on the two areas, the social-economic and the international security one respectively, and the "European and American" elements that make up Traian Băsescu's presidential rhetoric. The present analysis will be conducted from three different standpoints: in political terms, communicational terms, and in terms of image.


In political terms

I. The social-economic area

At a theoretical level, a presidential discourse should refer to Romania's national interest as a would-be European Union Member State, namely:

- Which are the concrete steps Romania is making, in terms of meeting the commitments undertaken before the European Union (reform in justice and administration, competition and State-aid policy, etc.);

- Which are the Romanian and foreign officials' positions as to the Country Report;

- What is the safeguard clause and what effects would its activation trigger at a micro and macro level; which are the sensitive areas and what has the Romanian Government done so far to prevent a prospective activation of the safeguard clause and a more distant accession prospect than year 2008;

- To what extent are strategies being searched for, in view of stimulating investments, attracting European funds, and increasing fund absorption capability;

- Which are the social-economic costs of integration (price rises, closing down companies which fail to meet European standards, redundancies in non-profitable sectors, etc.).  

And it is with great surprise that we find the presidential rhetoric to be extremely poor in such elements. The President's rhetoric is limited to general terms and an absolutely superficial approach on the 2007 or 2008 accession date. The fact that President Băsescu states that we will join the EU in 2007 and there is no back-up plan for 2008 is an exclusively politicising statement, and lacks any political substance. To rule out the 2008 hypothesis is in fact to refuse to openly discuss the problems Romania is facing or may be facing as far as the European integration topic is concerned. Moreover, for both President Băsescu and Foreign Minister Ungureanu to admit with such casualness that there is no plan B, is not only an utterly defiant attitude as to the Romanian society, but also an immature and irresponsible attitude with respect to European institutions.

One can hardly tell where precisely, in the presidential rhetoric, is the social-economic area to be found, and it is even more difficult to identify the public and national interest. There is one certainty as far as the public stake of such tactics goes:

- The public which is poorly informed on the European Union is deliberately denied access to any type of information on the stage of Romania's preparations, the concrete steps to be made, etc.;

- The public which is well informed (naturally, from sources other than the presidential rhetoric) either becomes "accomplice" to this lack of information, or simply is not "represented" in the President's rhetoric.


II. The international security area

At a theoretical level, the presidential rhetoric should refer to Romania's commitments as a State- and to Romania's relations with neighbouring states, primarily.

Strategically speaking, Romania as a NATO member relies heavily on the trump card of the security and defence policy. Instead of an European defence and security structure, NATO has continued to play in Europe- the role it played outside this region. Concentration of NATO forces in conflict theatres has often "hurt" the egos of Europe-'s great powers, as the NATO intervention was seen as an "interference" of the American strategic interest in an area outside its direct influence.

As a NATO Member and a would-be EU Member, Romania plans to "pop up" precisely in the field where Europe has always been vulnerable to NATO and the USA, namely in the defence and security policy (PESC - the third pillar in the Maastricht Treaty). Thus, Romanian foreign policy makers started from the identification of strategic and regional areas. It is true that so far the cooperation region at the Black Sea- has only been outlined in economic terms, but more often than not it also took the form of political "commitments."

As a recollection of a "national pride" very close to patriotism, the President fosters the vision of a regional leader, at the confluence of Eastern and Western interests, of the USA and Russia, of the EU and NATO.

The central concept of the presidential rhetoric is, by far, the promotion of security at the Black Sea-. President Băsescu wants to impose the concept of security protection at the Black Sea as a country brand, while the famous "London-Washington-Bucharest" axis seems to be the direction shaped in the negotiation of alliances formed for and around this "brand". According to the presidential rhetoric, Romania should be the central player in the American policy for the Black Sea region, which will on the one hand contribute to the democratisation of ex-Soviet states (but without upsetting its relationships with Russia!), and on the other hand will be a member state of the political-strategic alliance which will be established at the Black Sea by Europe's great powers, in order to "put out" protracted conflicts in the region. The approach, specific to the American rhetoric, is that of preventative intervention in view of imposing values seen as generally accepted and understood by all nations.

The natural questions coming to one's mind are:

- To what extend does Romania have the legitimate authority to impose such an interventionist strategy?

- Which are the foreign institutional, strategic and logistics resources for the implementation of such a regional-scale security project?

- Which is Romania's national interest, when imposing and implementing this project?

Unfortunately, for all these (otherwise common-sense) questions, President Băsescu only has poor and hardly credible answers. After having admitted, in the meeting in Cotroceni Palace, to the lack of a security strategy for the Black Sea region, within one month President Băsescu announced, in the meeting with Romanian students, that such a strategy existed and was to be sent to European officials.


In terms of image

The concept of "security region at the Black Sea-," launched at the very onset of the presidential mandate, was intended to draw the international officials' attention on Romania, and on its strategic interest. A small country with such visions and security demands cannot and must not go unnoticed, the President seems to say. In this respect, Romania means to become the pivotal carrier of a security idea, concept and vision. The merit of the State-, and implicitly of President Băsescu, will be that of having warned on a region "burdened" by latent conflict and asymmetrical threats, such as the Black Sea- region. In other words, according to Traian Băsescu, Romania wants to be treated as part of the community of great states and also as an element of cohesion, of trans-regional cooperation and of bridging up the divides between the East and the West, between Europe and the USA, between the ex-Soviet space (with autocratic drives) and the Western, democratic one. On the other hand, through his rhetoric, the President "flatters" USA's expansionist tendencies, by identifying a region for pre-emptive intervention.

We are yet to see how effective this project is, if only in terms of country image. One thing is certain: since Traian Băsescu moved to Cotroceni, Romania has not been visited by any head of state, and over the past few months President Băsescu has not been invited abroad by any official.


In communicational terms

This is the most sensitive spot of the presidential foreign policy rhetoric. Most of our readers are aware of President Băsescu's flaws: poor knowledge of English, the famous "axis," mistaking "occupation troops" and "peacekeeping troops," to reducing the foreign relations down to the scope of a parable, with the "glow worm" as a central character.

However, we should not overlook the radical shifts in the evolution of the presidential rhetoric. Ever since the electoral campaign, Traian Băsescu rejected the idea of a Romania which would rather join the EU in 2008 than "kneel down" to Europe-. Today, President Băsescu announces that Romania joins the EU in 2007, and refuses to consider a back-up plan. Furthermore, the would-be president was speaking about the "sweetener" that European presidents come and pick up when advantageous contracts (for them only) are signed (see Bechtel). While some inflexibility as to the contracts signed with PSD does persist, the same president prefers to "bow" directly to the "top-level glow worms" rather than ask for favours to smaller ones.


To wrap it up...

The communicational and political implications of the President's foreign policy rhetoric are distorted by all sorts of outbursts which are all but presidential and diplomatic. In political terms, Traian Băsescu's rhetoric remains an electoral, domestic, "tongue-in-cheek" one, with the true foreign policy goals of Romania buried under an inappropriate, intricate cover, lacking substance and in stark contrast with the European sophisticated, temperate and complex rhetoric.

In terms of communication and image, President Traian Băsescu counts on the electorate's vulnerabilities with respect to the economic field, but has no concrete solutions as far as Romania's meeting EU accession commitments is concerned. In exchange, the presidential rhetoric and prototype stimulates voters' appetite for leaders with authoritarian tendencies. The high share of references to foreign security and similarities with the American rhetoric indirectly encourage Romanians' preferences to nationalism and identity conformism.

Unlike Western Europeans, Eastern Europeans, and especially those in accession states, are not particularly bothered by the USA's globalising and expansionist tendencies. Romania's foreign policy has often searched for a middle course, in which its interests as a NATO state and as a future EU Member State could overlap. Although Romanians do not see terrorism as a major threat to their personal security, stimulation of certain insecuritycategories (related to their professional status, family income and children's future) makes them more dependent on the American pattern (due to its force) than on the European one. Consequently, President Băsescu's rhetoric is a mix of authoritarian elements and the American rhetoric pattern, which echoes in the voters' profile with respect to both areas of interest:

1. social-economic vulnerabilities are mitigated by the President's authoritarian rhetoric, although it does not include concrete solutions;

2. identity vulnerabilities are stimulated through the dependence on a global, hegemonic pattern, always ready to satisfy them.

The analysis above outlines an utterly disquieting political fact. Since he took over the mandate, President Băsescu has sentenced Romania to international isolation, particularly alarming considering that the EU accession date is drawing near: no head of state has visited Romania, while over the past few months President Băsescu has not been invited abroad by any foreign official.

The most recent foreign policy event, namely the UN summit, is also relevant for the analysis above!

by Ana-Maria Tănase

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