Populism and Anti-Occidental Romanian Political Discourse between 2001 and 2012



University of Bucharest & Université Montesquieu Bordeaux 4


Abstract: The aim of the below article is to propose a theoretical frame for exploring the link between discourse at the level of Romanian political elites and the country’s foreign policy, arguing that anti-occidental discursive stances represent populist manifestations with the domestic market (of voters) as recipients, but without any effect in influencing the “Occident” referential of the Romanian foreign policy.


Keywords: culture,populism, foreign policy decision-makers, referential,

discursive performance.


“We do not want to remind our European partners how they have conditioned our accession to the EU by the privatization of our banking sector”.[1]

(Traian Băsescu, President of Romania, November 24th, 2011)

“I do not accept for us to be used (…) Romania mustn’t behave like a colony, like a vassal.  Romania is not just a country, but the 7th largest in Europe, with an outstanding geostrategic position, with energy resources, cards to play. Those who govern Romania must be aware of such aspects”[2].

(Crin Antonescu, Ad-Interim President of Romania, August 17th, 2012)






Beginning with the 21st century we find Romania involved in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, taking the side of an international coalition consisting mainly of Occidental powers and fighting the “War on Terror” under the United States leadership. But the Romanian attachment for the Occidental[3] space has manifested earlier than the 2000s. Soon after the 1989 Revolution, Romania has clearly manifested her desire to “return to the Occident” after the unfortunate communist disruption. In this respect, the country’s intention to join the structures of NATO, CEE – soon to be European Union or Council of Europe - is given voice during the mandate of the first president after the Revolution - Ion Iliescu. This aim is indirectly manifested, judging by the numerous visits and agreements concluded between Romania and Occidental parties (states and organizations)[4], but it is also expressed clearly by the representatives of the new Romanian regime[5]. The pro-Western attitude of Romania continues during the entire decade of the 1990s, with events such as the Snagov Declaration[6] or Romania’s sideling with NATO during the Kosovo war, when Romania has given NATO the right to use Timisoara airport for its air bombardments against Belgrade[7]. Romania’s goal is accomplished de jure in 2004 and 2007, with the adhesion to NATO, respectively the EU. But, paradoxically, once in the Occidental club, an anti-occidental type of discourse takes shape at the level of the Romanian high political elite. Such displays, unconceivable before 2004, culminate in the summer of 2012 with aggressive verbal attacks aimed at the US ambassador, EU’s Jose Barroso, Angela Merkel and EU institutions. These come from the highest level: they are formulated by Crin Antonescu, President Ad-Interim of Romania at that time and, at the moment when this article is written, the second man in the State, as Chief of the Senate, credited with major chances to become the newly elected president of Romania in this year’s (2014) elections.

The background of anti-occidental outbursts of 2012 lies in the events that led to the suspension of the President in exercise, Traian Băsescu, by the newly elected majority in the Romanian Parliament, unfavourable to Băsescu. During the referendum campaign conducted to reconfirm Băsescu as president, Western institutions were accused of overtly taking Băsescu’s side, and rather than being impartial, interfering in the internal policy of Romania. But, one may observe such verbal anti-occidental outbursts before the events of 2012, and one may discover such declarations at president Băsescu himself - the alleged “man of the Occident” in 2012. 

Why and how this sudden change in the way of perceiving the Occident by the Romanian political high decision makers? Is this a discursive “disenchantment” with the Occident manifesting de facto as well as in a change of the Romanian foreign policy attitude towards Occident?

The topic I discuss in this article refers to the link between the negative images of the Occident, as are constructed in the discourse of Romanian high decision makers, and populism. The period I am addressing for this analysis is 2001-2012. More precisely, my interest lies in the evolution of the (anti-)occidental images in the afore-mentioned period. The aim of the article is to propose a theoretical frame for analysing whether indeed the culture shared by the Romanian decision makers with respect to the West shifted during this period or, rather we are having to do with displays of a populist discourse that illustrates a “doublespeak”[8], a discourse not rooted in beliefs or intellectual convictions, but malleable according to circumstances and oriented to immediate goals. In other words, my main research question centres around the “speech-act” doublet: is there any connection between the anti-occidental speech of the Romanian political high decision makers and Romania’s foreign policy behaviour?  My argument is that no such link may be deduced, this act does not relate to speech in what concerns my selected case study, and this will be proven by focusing my attention on the unit of analysis represented by foreign policy decision makers that will be further developed below.

From the methodological standpoint, the approach I am planning to use is rooted in the constructivist current of international relations and the symbolic interactionism theory[9].

In accordance with the constructivist theory, I shall discuss firstly the cultures of anarchy, their degrees of internationalization and the potential evolution of the cultures of anarchy via symbolic interactionism. Then I shall be assessing, via the concept of discursive performance of Charles Morris, the link between speech and act in the chosen case study: Romania between 2001 and 2012. The stake of my article is to demonstrate that the anti-occidental discourse to be found at the level of Romanian decision makers during 2001-2012, doesn’t explain a change in the shared culture of anarchy with regards to the Occidental space: the foreign behaviour of Romania didn’t modify at all, despite her anti-occidental outbursts. In other words, Romania’s referential in foreign policy in relation to the Western space remains unchanged; hence, the anti-occidental speech is simply a (passing) populist flare, without substance, and not translated into further action.



            The approach I suggest for researching this proposed topic is rooted in the foreign policy analysis (FPA) tradition. FPA represents an extremely versatile research tool, especially at a time when more and more social scientists plead for interdisciplinarity. Like in Europe, the case of Gerard Dusuoy, but who is not a singular voice, “we cannot afford  the cosiness of a separate specialization between social sciences and, no matter how difficult, an effort of synthesis should be made when explaining, no matter how imperfect the results”[10].

One of the pillars of the FPA frame I am intending to use is rooted in the constructivist school of International Relations (IR). According to Nicholas Onuf, a leading representative of this school, social reality per se doesn’t have an objective fabric. But its sense and thus “objectivity” may be regarded differently and understood subjectively different, depending on the decipherer. Thereby, constructivists claim that social reality, of which international environment is part, is socially constructed. For constructivists, the laws that govern social reality present a certain degree of relativism and should be assumed in this manner. This is a crucial point where the constructivists’ path radically separates from realists’ or liberal internationalists’, the exponents of the two other major schools in IR theory. Because, for these last two, social reality is governed by laws somehow objective and that may be identified - a tribute realism and international liberalism bring to the science of economics, a major hub of ideas, for both these currents.

At the same time, for constructivists, language has a constitutive function, not just a descriptive one. Taking as basis the linguistic-turn model, developed by philosophers of language such as J. Habermas, J.L. Austin, J.R. Searle to name just a few, constructivists affirm that: “Language does not only serve to represent the world as it is. Language also has a constitutive function. By speaking, we make the world what it is”[11].

Through the language, constructivists say, we also provide others with a perspective on the culture we are anchored in. Thus, culture is being expressed and constructed by language with the meaning given by Alexander Wendt[12] of “shared ideas forming the subset of the social structure known as culture”[13]. Thus, culture is a form of shared knowledge both common to and connecting individuals. This involves the idea that culture is not a sector or sphere of society distinct from economy or politics for instance, but is present anywhere shared knowledge exists. In fact, “if economy or politics are spheres of society institutionally distinct, as in capitalism, it is because they are constituted by culture this way”[14]. From this meaning of culture, Wendt describes three types of “shared cultures of anarchy” dominating the international system at its macro-level. They function by attributing (to an Other) the roles of enemy, rival or friend. Based on the distinctions proposed by Wight/English School of IR, Wendt names these structures of anarchy: Hobbesian, Lockean and Kantian. These labels explain a social structure, in which actors are taking themselves in consideration when they are assigning to one another roles based on their ideas of the nature and role of the Self, respectively the Other. Why do actors internalize certain cultures of anarchy, assuming certain norms and in consequence certain comportments? Wendt answers: either because they are forced, because it is in their interest, or just because they perceive the norm as legitimate[15]. We hence have 3 degrees of internalization of a norm, which in turn generates 3 ways by which the structure is accepted: force/coercion, price/interest or legitimacy. The roles of enemy (Hobbes), rival (Locke) or friend (Kant) are perceived by the Self and internalized each in turn on the basis represented by coercion, interest and legitimacy[16].

Cultures of anarchy represent not just simple structures allowing a decipherment of the socially constructed international setback according to an individual operational code[17], but at the same time, they directly influence the positioning of the Self. The internalization of a certain type of culture generates certain role “attributions” for the Other and a certain type of behaviour in consequence. From this standpoint, culture is a self-fulfilling prophecy[18], because the Self behaves in accordance with the expectations he has regarding the Other and the way he will react.

But what is the mechanism by which cultures of anarchy evolve or involve, how does the operational code of the decision maker change? At this moment I shall bring into question the second pillar I am founding on my FPA endeavour, namely the perspectives developed by the theories of symbolic interactionism. My point of departure is the model proposed by G.H. Mead, which explains the cultural evolution via cultural selection[19]. Cultural selection influences role attributions, respectively identities, in two main ways: by imitation and social learning. As mentioned, role attributions are built and evolve via cultural selection. This includes two stages: imitation and social learning. Imitation, the process which takes place first, consists in copying the meanings attributed to those perceived as successful, of the model internalized as legitimate or to be pursued. The second stage, social learning, appears when actors start interacting. In this way, by repeated valuations generated during the interactions between the Self and the Other, the perspective on the Other evolves.

Rooted in the tradition of symbolic interactionism, is as well the concept of discursive performance that I am planning to use for the assessment of the speech-action relations. The discursive performance was developed initially in the writings of Charles Morris[20] and I find it very useful because it traces a link between discourse and behaviour, focusing in particular on the efficiency of discursive acts and their being put into practice.

Last, but not least, depositaries of culture are not empty vessels or abstract concepts. In the end, the foreign policy decision maker may be identified in the person of the individual making the decision engaging the state politically or just from a symbolic point of view in relation with its peers. In this respect, the approach I am assuming is nominal, thus the actors to be researched are the individuals representing the bureaucracies that form the state. For our case study, which has to do with the referential in the Romanian foreign policy, one should first see what actors have representation power in such matter, thus what is the locus of foreign policy decision-making. In Romania, “foreign policy decision making is located in the institutional triangle formed by the President, Prime-minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister. Other factors within the political system, like political parties or public opinion, have little influence on the decision making process”[21]. We have thus identified as well the locus of foreign policy decision making, hence we have shaped our field of analysis.


Beginning with the second half of the 1990s, Romanian foreign policy’s target, assumed by the political class in its entirety, was the country’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures: NATO and EU. Acceding to the membership statute of NATO and EU was assimilated in integrum by Romanian political elites as an indivisible objective. In fact, at the beginning of 2000s, the Romanians were hardly able (in an overwhelming proportion) to differentiate between the two institutions which meant for them one and the same thing: the Occident[22]. The aim was reached with the accession to NATO in 2004 and then, in 2007, to the EU. The historical burden of the moment was obvious. It was more than mere membership to NATO or the EU; it was the mythical return of Romania to the Western civilization after 50 years of communism. The political goal of “returning to the Occident” was embraced unanimously by the Romanian political establishment, proving its internalization as legitimate[23].  And, for reaching it and receiving the membership card of EU and NATO, strict conditions to reform State institutions, the economy, by respecting democratic values, etc. were accepted and implemented by Romanian elites, thus providing us with a proof of the legitimacy of the Occidental model at  the level of Romanian elites. Then, why the negative change in the discursive attitude towards the West, from the second half of the years 2000? What were the reasons of this discursive “fall from legitimacy” of “the Occident”?

The reasons were multiple. We may at least look for evidences by studying the negative perceptions around certain controversial episodes (with a clear discursive manifestation) that generated feelings of fortuitousness and unjust conditionings imposed to Romania by the Occident, in order to accede to NATO or the EU. This is what I name the internal level interaction. To this, the change of the perception with regards to the external level - the international situation - is to be added.

On the one hand, what kind of internal level interactions that generated change of perception into negative one may refer to? I shall not detail, but only briefly mention some of the episodes that produced an outstanding discourse material at the level of Romanian decision makers and generated a negative role attribution for the Occident.

One such example is the Petrom case (2004). It refers to the sale of the Romanian national oil company to the Austrian company OMV. It was intensely speculated that the sale was a concession made to Austria by the Romanian government. At that time, Austria having the presidency of the EU, it lobbied to help closing more easily some chapters of negotiation with the European Union. Even more vocal was the Bechtel Affair (2004) which refers to a massive motorway construction contract offered by Romania to the US construction giant, Bechtel. People said, even the former prime-minister of those days, Adrian Nastase, stated in his later memoires, that this was the concession needed for Romania to be accepted in NATO. In 2006, Romania was involved in the so-called Frigate Business. It was speculated that Romania bought two old war frigates at an overvalued acquisition price from Great Britain so as to gain the latter’s support, again in order to close some negotiation chapters with the EU. In 2006, takes place the privatization of the Romanian Commercial Bank, the largest banking institution in Romania. It was later denounced by President Băsescu himself that the respective privatization was a condition imposed for Romania’s accession to the EU. This impacted Romania especially during the financial crisis from 2009 onwards, when all financing lines of the foreign banks operating in Romania were harshly reduced. The lack of available credits affected Romanian business in consequence. Last but not least, the tensions around the accession to the Schengen space in 2011 gave birth to funny episodes like the “tulip war” between Romania and the Netherlands, the fiercest opponent against Romania’s accession to the Schengen space.

Other than internal type of interactions that influenced the discourse of Romanian decision makers, starting from 2008 onwards, an increased awareness that international environment changes compared with 2001 becomes obvious. The prolonged economic crisis in which the West still languishes as opposed to the dynamic Asia makes things even more noticeable and influences the discursive manifestations of Romanian decision makers. What in 2001 was a US single-pole world, turned now into a multipolar environment. In this new world, emerging states, especially in Asia, led by China, offer a totally new modernization model, different from the Occidental one. In this world, Romanian decision makers perceive the interaction with the new external environment as one forcing them to act on a discursive logic towards pursue of interest. I am only exemplifying, in this respect, the very recent declaration of president Traian Băsescu regarding the Nabucco pipeline (Băsescu, who is known as an ardent EU supporter): “Romania will redefine her energy policy based on her resources and not waiting for anybody’s approval. Certainly, Romania would have had advantages if Nabucco had been constructed. And I am not at the age of puberty to believe that both parties have won, that from TAP extensions will be made… I have passed the age of political puberty. These are just consolation words and Romania must take her faith regarding strategic energy into her own hands. The most important message in this brief analysis is that Romania doesn’t want to remain dependant of a single supplier and we will self-define our energy policy taking into consideration the failure of the European project. We cannot wait for Europe’s new project, which again we don’t know if will succeed”[24].

What is in the end the discursive performance of all these negative position takings with respect to the West of high Romanian decision makers, such as the President? Does the negative speech influence the foreign policy referential of Romania with respect to her Occidental path or to her Occidental partners? The answer is assuredly no, judging by the facts.

In this regard, it is worth remembering the various events denoting actions in total opposition with the anti-occidental discursive stances. We are thus confronted with concretely pro-occidental actions on the background of anti-occidental statements. Let us recall in this sense a series of such events that I shall only pass in review. I would mention first of all the signing, in 2006, of the bilateral agreements between Romania and the United States by which the US were allowed to install American military facilities in Romania. This materialized into the “Mihail Kogalniceanu” US military base of Constanta at the beginning of 2007. Then, in 2008, the choosing of Bucharest to host a major NATO summit, in which all the important Western chiefs of state and government participated, including G. W. Bush, N. Sarkozy, etc. The discussions focussed on momentous issues regarding NATO’s future, such as the decision to halt the further Eastern expansion of the Alliance, while choosing the Romanian capital as a host city, was considered an important indicator for the country’s importance within the Alliance. Then, let us recall the agreement signed by Romania and the United States in 2011 named “A Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century” which led to the decision of choosing Romania to host elements of the US antiballistic-missile defensive shield. It is also worth noting Romania’s participation together with the international coalition led by Europe in the events that followed the Arab Spring, more specifically Romania’s participation in the military intervention in Libya – all these aspects represent an undeniable proof of Romania’s affiliation to the Western club. It should be remembered as well that Romania was among the first states accepting to sign the “European Fiscal Treaty” in 2012, according to which the EU’s supranational power is enforced and gives EU institutions the right to intervene in national legislations regarding various measures related to economic stability and governance.


My analysis tries to establish a link between the anti-occidental speech of Romanian political high decision makers and Romania’s foreign policy behaviour with respect to the Occident. But there is no such link between negative discourses and actions in our case. The anti-occidental discursive outbursts coming from time to time, either from the President, the Prime-minister or other important figures of the Romanian political establishment, do not influence the political referential represented by the “partnership” of the country with the  Occidental club. Such declarations should rather be considered and interpreted taking into account the particular local context in which politicians have made the statement, seeking to profit by stigmatizing the new scapegoat in town, the West included, if this is at reach.  In the end, this is all intended for the domestic public in a purely politically populist, catch-all and hit-all type of argumentation.

In his famous Disenchantment of the World, Marcel Gauchet proposes an original and radical vision on the West from a religious perspective. More precisely, he describes the socio-human universe re-composition outside religion, the universe being now free from its profound dependence on Gods and their immutable laws (the Divine survives, what dies is its power!). According to Gauchet, the world disenchantment took place (maybe) paradoxically, initially based on a religious logic that backfired. In a similar and also paradoxical sense, the anti-occidental and even Occidentalist[25] discourse of Romanian decision makers generates sometimes a verbal “disenchantment with the Occident” which actually signifies exactly the opposite. The disenchantment with the West expresses the need of Romania for the Occident, the main the Other to which, throughout her history, Romania has longed to belong.





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[1] Traian Băsescu’s Declaration, [consulted on 30.06.2012 on http://economie.hotnews.ro/stiri-finante_banci-10776156-basescu-avertisment-adresa-bancilor-nu-vrea-aducem-aminte-prietenilor-nostri-europeni-cat-conditionat-admiterea-privatizarea-sistemului-bancar.html].

[3] The connotation I am referring to  “Occident”  during the article is not only cultural, that of  “occidental civilization”, but  as well I am including NATO, the European Union or main Western Powers like the United States, France, Great Britain, Germany, etc. in the term of “Occident”.

[4] See the events of years 1990-1992 in Stan STOICA, România după 1989. O istorie cronologică, Ed. Meronia, Bucureşti, 2007.

[5] For instance, the Romanian government’s request that Romania be admitted in the Council of Europe as a member with full rights (March 20th 1990) or the request of the Romanian representative in the EEC that the EEC begin negotiation with Romania for the country’s adhesion to EEC (May 30th 1991). In Stan Stoica, op.cit.

[6] In 2005, all Romanian parties ratified the “Snagov Declaration” which stated the consensus of all political forces (it included PRM, extreme right party) as to the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

[7] It should be mentioned that in the Romanian collective mental, Serbia has a very good image and is considered to be the “best neighbour Romania has, other than the Black Sea”. The saying refers to the fact that throughout history, Romania never had disputes of any sort with Serbia, as opposed to all her other neighbours. 

[8] I refer to the sense coined by George ORWELL in his 1984 for the term, which should not be confounded with “double-talk”.

[9] I will be making reference mainly to the works of Alexander Wendt for constructivism and George Herbert Mead and Charles Morris for symbolic interactionism.

[10] Gerard DUSSUOY, Les théories de la mondialité: gagnants et perdants du sans-frontiérisme, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2009, p. 11.

[11] Nicholas ONUF, Worlds of Our Making: The Strange Career of Constructivism in International Relations, in Donald J. PUCHALA (ed.), Visions of International Relations, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2002.

[12] Alexander WENDT, Teoria socială a politicii internaționale, trans. Mihai Cristian Brașoveanu, Polirom, Iași, 2001, pp. 250-256.

[13] Ibidem, p. 253.

[14] Ibidem, p. 157.

[15] Ibidem, p. 253.

[16] Ibidem,  p. 261.

[17] Alexander George, the introducer of this term together with Nathan Leites, defines the operational code as:  “A political leader’s belief about the nature of politics and political conflict, his views regarding the extent to which historical developments can be shaped, and his notions of correct strategies and tactics - whether these beliefs be referred to as operational code, Weltanshauung, cognitive map or an elite’s political culture - are among the factors influencing that actor’s decisions”, in Alexander GEORGE, “The Operational Code: A Neglected Approach to the Study of Political Leaders and Decision-making”, International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2, p. 11.

[18] Alexander WENDT, Teoria…cit., pp. 195-199.

[19]George Herbert MEAD, “The Social Self”, Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, No. 10, 1913, pp. 374-380 and George Herbert MEAD, Mind, Self and Society, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1934.

[20] See Charles MORRIS, Signs, Language and Behavior, Prentice Hall, New York, 1946.

[21] Ruxandra IVAN, La politique étrangère roumaine (1990-2006), Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, Bruxelles, 2009 p. 14.

[22] CSOP Poll, accesed – 30.09.2012, [ www.csop.ro/arhiva/967975].

[23] See footnote 6, concerning the Snagov Declaration

[25] I refer to the term in the sense given by Ian BURUMA, Avishai MARGALIT in their Occidentalism. A Short History of Anti-Westernism, Atlantic Books, London, 2004.