11/13/2014 02:47 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

What Berlin (and Brussels) Can Teach Cairo and Washington

What do the fall of the Berlin Wall and the biggest US trade mission to Egypt have in common? Apparently nothing; in reality quite a lot.

The New York Times recently criticized the State Department for organizing the largest trade mission to Egypt while the local government was cracking its citizens' liberties. True, El Sisi's government is not textbook democracy, nor does it represent what we had hoped for Egypt after the January 25 revolt. Yet, comparatively speaking and save Israel, it is not the worst one in the region and the last thing we need is yet another destabilized country in Middle East (and what country, for the matter).

We unfortunately have to come to terms with the fact that democracy is not an exportable good, unless there are appropriate pre-conditions on the ground. This is where the Berlin Wall comes in. The prevailing narrative in Washington is to credit NATO with what happened in Central and Eastern Europe 25 years ago (and subsequent developments). While NATO integration was one of the many intervening factors, such narrative overlooks three main variables.

First, between WWI and WWII, the Central and Eastern European countries (CCECs) had experienced liberal regimes. For how imperfect those experiences were in democratic terms, they still left behind both a reminiscence in the political culture and a certain level of expertise, especially among the older generations. Different was the case with Russia -- which, not by chance, is still facing a troubled path toward democracy -- and with most of Middle East today.

Second, the European Union -- then still known as European Economic Community (EEC) -- was a major factor in supporting the democratic and economic development of the area. Economic and trade agreements with the EEC were signed as early as 1988 (with Hungary and Czechoslovakia), 1989 (with Poland), and 1990 (with Bulgaria and Romania), while those countries were still transitioning toward democracy. The trade agreements were then replaced with association agreements (the so-called Europa agreements) in 1992 (Hungary and Poland), 1993 (the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania) and Slovenia (1996). The Europa agreements provided a framework for political dialogue, promoted trade and economic relations between the CEECs and the EEC (virtually eliminating trade barriers), and provided financial and technical assistance for the gradual integration of the CEECs into a wide range of EU policies and programs and prepare for joining the European Union. The EEC put all its weight into using agreements to influence the democratic and economic development of the CEECs and indeed, the successful transformation, democratization, stabilization, and incorporation of the neighboring countries has been one of the most significant foreign policy achievements of the EU. The recent events in Ukraine show that, without the benefit of prospective EU membership, no "carrot" is big enough.

Third, the US still had something it has since partially lost: its moral standing and consequent leverage. For a long time, the US -- by definition the land of freedom and democracy -- has been a major source of inspiration and a beacon of hope for large parts of the world -- or by contrast of despise -- depending on where people stood in politically, as love and hate are often strictly related.

In leadership, just like in parenthood, leading by example is the main formula for success. That principle stands true in international relations, too. In Washington there is unfortunately however no real understanding of how powerful the US' moral leverage was then and how comparatively reduced it is today. Hopes and dreams of a better future are what drive and define human beings and people looked up at the United States. One of the reasons why President Barak Obama was so enthusiastically welcomed abroad -- to the (mistake) of being awarded the Nobel Prize in his first year in office -- was exactly because of the hopes he raised.

In concrete terms, such hopes mainly translate into expectations of better education and of more prosperous economy, the two being strictly interlinked.

International education has been such a fundamental pillars of US public diplomacy that Joseph Nye included educational exchanges in his definition of "soft power." September 11 brought halt to a positive trend that had lasted decades -- mainly because of the new SEVIS visa system and database and of the CONDOR system, which prevented many young people from Arab and Muslim males from coming to the US. Though more appropriation legislation would be needed to further promote incoming and outgoing international student mobility and international cooperative research, at least the numbers are once again positive, with 819,644 foreign students newly enrolled in US higher education institutions in the academic year 2013/2014 (out of which over 25% from China).

There remains economic prosperity. Events -- in Middle East, but also in some European countries and beyond -- show that, in times of economic restrains, people are unfortunately willing to swap less democracy for more prosperity, peace and stability. Economic prosperity is thus a necessary -- yet unfortunately not sufficient -- component of democracy. Had the Eastern and Central European countries not been economically supported right at the outset of their revolutions, when their institutions were not yet fully democratic, we might have not celebrated the Fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years on.

While business and trade promotion may not correspond to our desire for bald action in favor of democracy and human rights, they do, however, represent a fundamental step toward them. But most of all -- differently from bombs -- they can contribute to restore the US's most powerful tool of all: its international moral leverage.