Until the mid-2000s, Atlanticism was the unquestioned guiding light of foreign policy across post-communist “New Europe.” Not anymore. It is not that the region has become openly anti-American. Rather, its elites and publics have lost interest in the United States, just as interest in Central and Eastern Europe has dissipated in Washington.
With the “pivot to Asia,” the plans for a missile defense shield for Poland and the Czech Republic were shelved. Central Europe was treated largely as an afterthought during Obama’s tenure, even when aspiring authoritarians in Budapest and Warsaw started tightening the screws. At a critical time in Hungary, the ambassadorial post was handed over to Colleen Bell, the former producer of “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
Things have not improved under Donald Trump’s presidency. The criticisms of corruption and rule of law and the scolding over infringements of gay and minority rights has been replaced by the opposite extreme: a complete obliviousness to Viktor Orbán’s and Jarosław Kaczyński’s agendas and their implication for U.S. interests. “Had I witnessed that the freedom of any individual or institution was put in danger, I’d be the first one to raise concerns,” says David Cornstein, Trump’s new Ambassador in Budapest and a former jewelry retailer.
Yes, there has been some pressure exerted to increase defense budgets, though the positive results have largely been homegrown and confined to Poland and the Baltic countries. Overall, however, the attempts to keep the transatlantic conversation meaningful feel more and more forced. And with so much else happening in the world, it is not clear why Central Europe, increasingly prosperous and integrated into the EU and NATO, should be at the forefront of American foreign policy.
But it should. The region has been a constant source of geopolitical headaches that repeatedly forced Americans to come to Europe’s rescue. Its relative calm and prosperity are deceptive: Central Europe is a playground for bad actors, from Vladimir Putin and China to budding local authoritarians and oligarchs siphoning away public funds for their own personal benefit and eroding trust in democratic capitalism.
Unlike Washington, Brussels holds significant leverage over the region by virtue of the enormous benefits provided to Central European countries through their EU membership. Those benefits include the single market, which has made the region an integral part of German value chains, but also the free movement of people, which took the pressure off local labor markets when the 2008 crisis hit. Today, a million Poles and over 400 thousand Romanians live in the UK alone. Finally, there are EU funds, which account for practically all public investment in the region—mostly roads, railways, and other infrastructure.
Not surprisingly, pluralities across Central and Eastern Europe support EU membership. In Poland, for example, 50 percent of people hold a positive view of the EU, while only 12 percent hold a negative one. Neither Fidesz in Hungary, nor the Law and Justice Party in Poland are seeking to leave the bloc.
Still, the EU has been terrible at using its leverage effectively, as the standoffs over the rule of law in Poland and Hungary illustrate. Instead of dissuading Orbán and Kaczyński from authoritarian practices, the bloc’s conflation of authoritarianism, immigration issues, and the region’s social conservatism—most recently illustrated by the example of Judith Sargentini’s report on Hungary—has pitted Central European countries against Brussels in a bitter culture war.
Ties to the United States, in contrast, are few and esoteric. The NATO guarantees still matter, of course. Those largely explain why “New Europe” was so eager to assist America during the Iraq War. As Radek Sikorski, Poland’s former foreign minister, put it, “Poland did not send a brigade to fight in the ill-conceived war in Iraq out of fear of weapons of mass destruction there. We did not send another brigade to Afghanistan in response to the September 11 attacks because we feared that the Taliban will come to Warsaw and enslave our girls. […] We did all of that because successive Polish leaders are invested in the U.S. security guarantee.”
Yet NATO’s security guarantees carry a much greater weight in countries that see themselves threatened by Russia—Poland and the Baltics—than elsewhere in the region. Most Hungarians, Slovaks, or Czechs simply do not see Russia as a threat. In a 2017 Pew Poll, 56 percent of Bulgarians and 52 percent of Romanians said that a strong Russia was needed to “balance the influence of the West.” China is present in the region as well, through its Belt and Road initiative, innocuous-looking investment projects, and active political outreach.
Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the stalled, strategy-less intervention in Libya, have led many to question the judgment of successive U.S. administrations. More seriously, the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, together with the support extended to Kosovo’s independence, have been ingrained in popular imagination as a treacherous attack on Central Europe’s Slavic “brothers” in the Balkans.
In socially conservative Central European societies, the support lent by the U.S. government to progressive causes has bought little goodwill. Even in the tolerant Czech Republic, the support extended in 2011 by U.S. Ambassador Norman Eisen to the Prague Pride march prompted unexpectedly strong pushback, including from then-Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, an Atlanticist with unimpeachable credentials.
The narrative of local extremists and the Kremlin’s propaganda machinery is that Central Europe has to choose between decadent progressive values pushed by the West—gay marriage, gender-neutral pronouns, and excessive political correctness—and the traditional, Christian way of life, associated increasingly with Russia. That is, of course, nonsense. The point of a liberal society is to allow a pluralism of values and lifestyles to co-exist within one society, not to stifle any of them. And Russia, a country with a shocking rate of 480 abortions per 1000 live births—higher than any other European country or the United States—is hardly the epitome of Christian values.
Yet, thanks to progressive overreach, Russian propaganda, and fears of immigration, that narrative has gained traction, distracting electorates from the hard challenges posed by the region’s weak institutions. Besides patronage, corruption, and the presence of oligarchs in politics (which are endemic throughout the post-Soviet space), authoritarianism has become a problem in Poland and Hungary. There, one-party governments have entrenched themselves, dismantled checks and balances, and trampled on civil society and independent media.
The United States cannot turn a blind eye to those developments. The former assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland was fully justified in her warning four years ago against the “twin cancers of democratic backsliding and corruption” in the region, creating “wormholes that undermine their nations’ security.”
The Obama Administration had good reasons to put a number of Hungarian officials, including the head of the country’s tax administration, NAV, on a U.S. visa ban list in 2014 after revelations of large-scale tax fraud in the food industry (which also affected a U.S. food-processing company, Bunge). The case reverberated throughout the country and inflicted damage on Fidesz—more so than any of the subsequent ideological attacks on Orbán’s government have managed to do.
It would be a mistake for the U.S. government to pussyfoot around similar cases. The challenge is to draw a line between the core issues of rule of law, corruption, and authoritarianism, and the broader progressive agenda, or questions of social tolerance and openness. Unlike his counterparts in the EU, the Trump Administration holds the conservative bona fides needed to bring Central European countries back into the Western fold.
Endemic corruption aside, it is simply not acceptable for Orbán to chase the leading American university in the region, the Central European University (CEU), from the country on bogus legalistic grounds. Whether or not one agrees with George Soros’s politics, the CEU has brought up a generation of pro-Western and pro-American leaders and scholars who are making a difference in the entire post-Soviet space.
Civil society and independent journalism, which have come under pressure from Polish and Hungarian governments, need support too. There, the risk is that any U.S. funding to independent media will be seen as explicitly favoring political opposition, partly because government-friendly outlets and NGOs do not face the same financial constraints as those that benefit from the largesse of the government and government-friendly oligarchs. The solution is to shift the locus of funding toward apolitical themes: local reporting, healthcare, education, and social mobility in underdeveloped regions. If a homegrown push for political change in Poland and Hungary is going to come from somewhere, it is not going to be driven by appeals to abstract values but rather by the fact that the state of large parts of the two countries, as well as the quality of government-provided services, do not correspond to rising levels of economic prosperity.
When it comes to security, whether the countries in question meet the 2-percent spending target (Poland and the Baltics already do or come close) is far less important than whether they remain well-governed, reliable, pluralistic democracies. NATO is a club of likeminded countries. As such it should enforce basic standards regarding democracy and rule of law. The Article 5 guarantees could be withheld, for example, from countries that slide towards authoritarianism like Turkey and increasingly also Hungary and Poland.
But, unlike during Obama’s tenure, there will have to be carrots as well as sticks. Why not send Vice President Mike Pence on a tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of communism? Central European audiences, particularly those outside cosmopolitan and liberal capital cities, are bound to react well. Politicians, including Central European ones, are vain creatures. In countries whose relations with the EU’s core are under strain, they have been eager for any kind of international engagement, whether it comes from the West, Turkey, or Russia.
True, President Trump himself might not be able to find these Central European countries on a map. Yet the U.S. government simply cannot afford to sit the next two (or six) years out without bidding farewell to any remnants of its influence in the region.