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What Biden’s Presidency Will Mean For Central and Eastern Europe

Less than three weeks before one of the most contentious national elections in US history, the Democratic candidate and now President, Joe Biden, uttered a remark that provoked mild indignation among Central and Eastern European (CEE) governments. Referring to a resurgent Russia and widespread perceptions of NATO’s declining strength and credibility, the former vice president stated, ‘You see what’s happened in everything from Belarus to Poland to Hungary, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world, and as well, [President Trump] embraces all the thugs in the world’.1 Although Mr Biden tactfully avoided directly ascribing blame to states in the region for the rise of authoritarian practices and influences, his comments struck a nerve among local policymakers who have long felt the sting of criticism from the European Union and the former American administration which Mr Biden previously helped to lead. Many in the region worry about the return of US foreign policy that they believe treats CEE states as a monolith unwilling to embrace baseline commitments shared by the US and Western European governments. The reality is likely more complicated and will depend on the articulation of President Biden’s priorities in the coming months.

CEE states face a set of challenges and opportunities for successful relations with the new administration. Each will likely seek a fresh start, as well as means to re-establish a cogent narrative of cooperation with the US after a period marked by unpredictable American pronouncements about Europe’s role in the world. Despite sometimes erratic diatribes about the failures of the EU, the Trump administration endeared itself to several CEE member states. Strident opposition to Russian and Chinese influence by American diplomats, as well as concrete steps like the Three Seas Initiative and the Blue Dot Network represented hopeful developments for some constituents of the Visegrád Group. A new president will undoubtedly mean a new direction. This report seeks to illuminate potential trends in US foreign policymaking in the next several months, and their implications for the region. Special emphasis is placed on Hungary’s interaction with the US and the possibility of roadblocks to joint action.

Repairing Traditional Transatlantic Relations

At the 2019 Munich Security Conference, Mr Biden set the tone for what is likely to become his foreign policy team’s aims in Europe. Speaking after Vice President Mike Pence, he spoke in a reassuring tone to an audience wary of the Trump administration’s years of assertive and sometimes abrasive statements. ‘This too shall pass. We will be back’, Mr Biden hopefully exclaimed. At first blush, what turned out to be the speech’s leitmotiv could be read as vow to reapply a transatlantic template set during President Barack Obama’s presidency. This agenda became known for its stance on climate change and the advancement of multilateral human rights efforts. Those predicting its return have referred to the old adage ‘personnel is policy’. The President has made plain his intention to reinstall veteran Democratic foreign policy hands with whom he served during his last stint in the executive branch.

‘Many in the region worry about the return of US foreign policy that they believe treats CEE states as a monolith unwilling to embrace baseline commitments shared by the US and Western European governments’

Yet those cheering for a swift return to Obama-era priorities in Europe are perhaps overlooking a key factor in determining what will shape Mr Biden’s goals: a fundamentally different European continent facing unique challenges. Upon assuming office, President Biden will begin to undertake the monumental task of rebuilding baseline credibility among disenchanted EU member states. He will have to reconsider the feasibility of objectives that were previously seen as central to US–European relations. For its part, the European Commission provided a lengthy agenda for transatlantic action in December 2020. These proposals, on climate, economic integration, and a host of other issues, will likely frame early interactions. Mr Biden will continue priming future collaboration with a reiteration of time-honoured rhetoric as well as carefully chosen deeds. His full-throated endorsement of international institutions abandoned by President Trump, his return to the Paris Climate Accord, and the extension of the arms control agreement known as New START are early gestures toward more robust multilateralism. Aspects of US relations with CEE states under a Biden administration will be defined in large part by a return to traditional narratives about what unites America and countries across Europe. Mr Biden’s past support for NATO’s eastward expansion will undergird the belief among his national security team in the continued salience of maintaining a Europe ‘whole and free’.2

However, the EU as it existed under the Obama administration is long gone. Disputes abound. Years of Brexit negotiations have opened rifts and fomented considerable bitterness. The UK’s role in Europe remains uncertain, and yet cooperation between the British government, the US, and the EU remains of vital importance. Intra- European struggles may ensnare attempts by the administration to recruit European allies as consistent partners. Whether the new administration will serve as a force for conciliation among the bickering constituents of the EU, or stands well back from these stormy waters, will only become clear in several months.

Recent statements by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, do not bode well for those envisioning instantaneous, shoulder-to-shoulder cooperation with the EU’s leaders. On the heels of last month’s EU–China investment agreement, she told an audience at the World Economic Forum, ‘I would very much wish to avoid the building of blocs’. The Chancellor elaborated that ‘I don’t think it would do justice to many societies if we were to say this is the United States and over there is China and we are grouping around either the one or the other’. Her message was clear: the US cannot expect European leaders to coalesce around a global agenda when so much is at stake. Instead, governments tending to Europe’s largest economies will advance their own short and medium-term objectives as the Biden administration sets its bearings.

What has become obvious for European governments in the last four years cannot be ignored: the health of decades-old alliances will not be sustained solely by nostalgia. This truism should be the watchword of CEE states seeking to characterize the President’s familiarity with the region as evidence of an overweening sympathy for their plight. The President is likely to look unfavourably upon policies adopted in the last four years that reversed initiatives for which he advocated during the Obama administration. President Trump’s intermittently harsh treatment of leaders in Germany, France, and elsewhere in Europe will likely be compensated for by a period of attempted consolation and the reconsolidation of previously steadfast, working relationships. Furthermore, Mr Biden’s honeymoon with First-Lady-to-be Jill Biden to Hungary in some forty years ago, as well as his involvement in the return of the Holy Crown to the regime under then Secretary-General János Kádár, should not be overstated. After all, these events themselves are the subject of domestic controversy in Hungary, with right-wing commentators questioning the wisdom of Mr Biden’s decision to work closely with the leadership of a Soviet- backed government and the left casting the events as vindication of détente’s prescribed gradualism during the Cold War.

In reality, these incidents, which occurred decades ago, say little about the orientation the administration will develop toward CEE countries. The memory of cooled relations between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government and the Obama administration will serve as the more complicated, difficult backdrop with which both Hungarian and American diplomats will have to contend. Predictions by Hungarian leaders that President Trump would win re-election may produce tensions given the unusually acrimonious transition in power that took place in Washington, DC. Vitriolic opponents of the Trump administration have heralded his defeat as a sea change. Recriminations are continually aimed at his real and perceived supporters. Cognizant of the symbolic effect of events like the storming of the US Capitol, the Biden administration may need to take stock of the most productive means of addressing disagreements about governance, public– private partnerships, the affiliation of media organizations, and political culture.

A crucial test will arise when the Biden administration chooses whether to continue US support for the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), an intergovernmental project among 12 Central and Eastern European countries located between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas. Whether President Biden reinforces President Trump’s steps to strengthen trade, infrastructure, energy security, and political cooperation among participating states will likely depend on his broader strategies toward Russia and China. James L. Jones, chairman of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and former advisor to President Obama, expressed support for this project following President Trump’s visit to the 3SI’s 2017 conference in Warsaw.3 The final weeks of the Trump administration have produced a $300 million investment in the 3SI Investment Fund by the US International Development Finance Corporation. This progress and momentum offers a rare opportunity for common ground and shared accomplishments in the future.

In addition, the Biden administration will have to decide whether to tread further along the dubious path of decreasing America’s military presence in Europe. After years of deteriorating relations with Germany, President Trump ordered the removal of approximately 12,000 troops from US bases there. Steps in this direction have already stalled, as Mr Biden’s national security team brought about ‘a global force posture review’. Despite these promising changes, the credibility of arguments about the need for European contributions to the continent’s own security will undoubtedly re-emerge. CEE states will likely remain sceptical, even amid fervent American reaffirmations of Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. The shock and disappointment felt after the US reneged on plans announced in 2007 to build a missile defence system on CEE territory give regional powers cause for caution about American intentions. These concerns are not insurmountable, as continued threats to their eastern borders remain at the forefront of their national security debates.

Consistent Confrontation with China

The Biden administration will respond to the most obvious tide of political sentiment brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the words of Mr Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the US intends to convey that ‘[we] will not accept a circumstance in which we do not have an effective public health surveillance system, with an international dimension, in China and across the world going forward’.4 The immiseration of the American people, the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, and the exasperation engendered by the year-long national emergency have intensified negative American opinion toward China. Specifically, public distrust of the PRC has continued to grow. Repudiation of its impact on global affairs can no longer be cast merely as parochialism or nativism. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the difference of opinion among Democrats (62 per cent of whom have a negative opinion of China) and Republicans (72 per cent) has narrowed.5

While Mr Biden will likely recast caustic anti-Chinese slogans into more even-handed criticism, there is little doubt he will respond swiftly to the political reality he will inherit. As Vice President, he criticized China’s trade policies, disregard for international law and norms, and human rights violations, and supported the Obama administration’s Asia–Pacific trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). President Biden restated several of these positions on the campaign trail, referring to the PRC’s persecution of more than one million Muslims in the province of Xinjiang as ‘unconscionable’.6

‘While Mr Biden will likely recast caustic anti-Chinese slogans into more even-handed criticism, there is little doubt he will respond swiftly to the political reality he will inherit’

The timing of the 2020 EU summit in Berlin to discuss China on 16 November 2020 has set the stage for US–European cooperation. Less than six weeks after the US presidential election, China and the EU struck a bilateral investment agreement. The sudden willingness to grant Brussels greater access to previously closed markets in China appears to be a transparent move on the part of the PRC to prevent the US from persuading its European partners to circle the wagons on several aspects of trade policy. Nonetheless, in the post-pandemic world, the Biden administration will likely seek means to collaborate with European institutions on policy toward the PRC. Rather than another four years of sidelining the EU on crucial foreign policy initiatives, the Biden administration will seek to promote joint action to combat domineering policies advanced by the PRC.7

Governments in Central Europe that have welcomed Chinese investment in infrastructure projects may be pressured to abandon their previous positions. Recently, Anthony Gardner, US Ambassador to the EU from 2014 to 2017 under President Obama, argued that ‘a Biden presidency will be much smarter in terms of dealing with China than we’ve been in the last four years’.8 This approach will likely entail coordination of policies aimed at lessening the PRC’s influence within the transatlantic community.

Revisiting Old and New Quarrels with Russia

Whereas a Biden administration will likely reinvent and redirect President Trump’s hostility toward China, a stark transition will surely occur with regard to US–Russian relations. This change will have significant implications for Central and Eastern Europe. Much maligned attempts to ‘reset’ relations in earlier periods have been overshadowed by the partisan tenor surrounding Moscow’s machinations in the 2016 election. The 2020 Democratic Party Platform’s harsh language toward Russia was uniquely scathing:

Democrats will join our European partners in standing up to a revanchist Russia. We will not allow Moscow to interfere in our democracies or chip away at our resolve. We will reaffirm America’s commitment to NATO and defending our allies. We will maintain transatlantic support for Ukraine’s reform efforts and its territorial integrity.9

This position recalls the blame placed by the Democratic Party on Russia for President Trump’s election. Extensive time and resources were poured into holding the Trump administration accountable for alleged ‘collusion’. Searing rhetoric in Congress regarding Russian activities in US elections will likely serve as a basis for continued criticism.

CEE states that have taken neutral positions on Russian intervention, or that have worked toward warming relations, may be criticized for allowing the expansion of anti-democratic policies. Americans and peoples of Central and Eastern Europe recall different historical legacies with regard to Russian power. It should come as no surprise they may not fully align in this area in the years to come. Yet the realities drawn from the proximity of CEE capitals to Moscow are not necessarily barriers to effective cooperation. The freedom won amid the collapse of the USSR remains an underlying, governing metaphor for many as they shape twenty-first-century foreign policy. Late last year, with great fanfare, the Government of Hungary and the US Embassy in Budapest unveiled another statue of an American Cold War hero, George Herbert Walker Bush. Honouring that particular US President unmistakably, if indirectly commemorates the shattering of a sphere of influence CEE states once attempted to shed. In their eyes, the demise of the USSR will never be what Russia’s seemingly indispensable leader has referred to as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’.

As a candidate, Mr Biden was particularly strident in his criticism of the Russian state and its leadership. He has suggested that President Vladimir Putin is ‘assaulting the foundations of Western democracy’, specifically seeking to destroy NATO, while sowing division among European states.10 Mr Biden points to vast Russian intelligence and financial conspiracies, aimed at illicitly influencing politicians and electoral systems. He has sought an independent, domestic investigation into Russia’s involvement in US elections. Depending on the outcome of this effort, American foreign policy will likely echo measures proposed by both chambers of Congress, where Democrats hold a controlling number of seats. American diplomats will be tasked with providing baseline evidence of nefarious activities to embattled foreign governments, urging others to avoid collaboration with Russia. To their advantage, CEE states may become the central targets for initiatives aimed at enhancing cyber infrastructure, eliminating foreign- money loopholes, and stronger coordination of transnational law enforcement (both civil and criminal). Nonetheless, the underlying reasons for their hesitancy to adopt these measures should be addressed.

Persuading Partners and Advancing Human Rights

Before assessing the potential impact of the Biden administration’s human rights policy, it is vitally important to address the dissonance and disagreement between certain CEE governments and contemporary human rights advocates across the globe. Hungary is a prime example of this phenomenon. Recognizing the roots of its disputes in this area requires a brief reprise of its current government’s narrative of Hungary’s experience in the twentieth century. Among the litany of tragedies befalling its people, the most dramatic in the popular conscience remains the Treaty of Trianon. Ratified in 1920, that agreement punitively severed some two-thirds of Hungary’s territory. The ravages of the Second World War were followed by another catastrophe: the rise of a brutal, oppressive regime beholden to an external power. The ceaseless struggle against Soviet domination, undertaken by multiple generations of Hungarians, bolstered by an impassioned diaspora, resulted in their view in a decisive victory: the fall of communism. Emphases placed on these events—the inheritance of brittle, unjust borders and the defeat of the Soviet system—are neither unique nor endemic to Hungary. Yet within CEE states they play distinct roles in sparking scepticism of recent trends in human rights advocacy. On the one hand, fundamental freedoms conceived around principles of untrammelled expression, religious liberty, economic opportunity, and democratic representation are issues these states remain open to discussing. Their electorates nurture sympathy for baseline commitments undertaken during their period of democratic transition. These human rights came at great cost: in blood spilled during decades of darkness, waste, and terror. They resonate deeply with a will for self-determination long stifled by external powers.

‘Whereas a Biden administration will likely reinvent and redirect Presiden Trump’s hostility toward China, a stark transition will surely occur with regard to US–Russian relations’

On the other hand, in some CEE states the jury is still out on human rights debates which are considered fully resolved in Western Europe. The movement toward more robust guarantees of protection for immigrants and LGBT communities, as well as recognition of the fluidity of gender and other forms of identity, have not won acceptance in Central and Eastern Europe as rapidly as elsewhere. The moral arguments for and against these positions are certainly due the attention that they receive. Opposition and majority parties throughout the region offer fervent arguments for and against them, and voters respond. However, their percolation through some polities and not others involves complicated questions with even more complicated answers. Among governments and peoples of CEE states, frustration fulminates along the lines of Charles de Gaulle’s logic: ‘on n’intègre pas les peuples comme on fait de la purée de marrons’ (‘one doesn’t unite peoples the way one purées chestnuts’). The ascendance of these human rights will continue to face fearsome public debate in CEE states. That is, in their view, the crucial democratic test all public policy must pass. But to borrow another expression of de Gaulle’s, there remains a ‘Europe  of fatherlands’ deeply embedded in the psyche of many of CEE electorates.

More than the substantive claims underlying contemporary human rights arguments, they worry about expectations that EU member states should dissolve their separate identities into a common post-national whole. Bearing the memories of hard-won independence, they wonder whether nation states are the best protectors and arbiters of human rights, revealed on their own terms, at their own pace. Given the critical attitudes within the Trump administration toward more progressive, forward-looking human rights developments, it is likely that a dramatic shift in this area will occur under the Biden administration. Democratic presidents since Jimmy Carter, who created the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor within the Department of State, have aggressively highlighted the need for reforms within countries neglecting human dignity and fundamental freedoms. However, the form that this brand of advocacy will take over the next four years, its relationship to other priorities, and the channels in which it will be articulated remain unclear. Rushing to judgement or responding pre-emptively with a defensive posture would be a misstep for either side.

‘Prime Minister Orbán’s past critique of the Western emphasis on human rights, which he referred to as ‘moral imperialism’, will likely apply less sharply to the Biden administration than to past Democratic presidents’

Speaking at the right-of-centre Washington-based think tank Hudson Institute before the election, Secretary of State Antony Blinken set out a general tenor for foreign policy in this arena. ‘Let me be clear,’ he said, ‘this is not about a crusade.’ He added, ‘we are not going to advance our principles by bayonets’, real or metaphorical. Instead, Blinken suggested that Mr Biden would approach the advancement of human rights dialogue on the basis of helpful consonances in values. ‘Where our partners show respect for democracy and human rights, they are more helpful to us.’ In turn, he explained, ‘we also find ourselves more helpful to them’.11

During a period of rising tensions in the Middle East and East Asia, where human rights abuses have occurred on a monumental scale, CEE states may not take the brunt of human rights activism. For example, progressives in the Democratic Party are likely to continue questioning the morality of American support for regimes tainted by their contravention of core human rights principles. President Biden moved swiftly to end American support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations against neighbouring Houthi rebels, declaring that ‘we are also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen, a war which is [a] humanitarian and strategic catastrophe’. Saudi Arabia will likely be targeted for rebukes, given its record during the Trump administration’s period of warm relations with the Kingdom. This reckoning will likely take months, as stalwart advocates of human rights in the Middle East, like Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper, have argued that the US ‘must answer for its part in the tragedy’, and that it ‘owes it to itself and to the victims of the war to learn something from the disaster’.12 Furthermore, addressing unforeseen events like the coup d’état in Myanmar will likely feature prominently in efforts to censure violators of key human rights treaties. The Trump administration’s decisions to remove countless ‘special envoys’ from the US Department of State dedicated to specific human rights issues may be a permanent change. If these positions are not recreated, that may signal, early on, that prior areas of cooperation in the arena of human rights will be emphasized instead.

Given his rhetoric on the campaign trail, Mr Biden’s administration will likely prioritize democracy and the rule of law, which many consider a subset of human rights issues. This will initially take shape through Mr Biden’s plans to convene a global Summit for Democracy, styled, in his words, to ‘renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World’. This push to strengthen democratic institutions may result in CEE governments hearing once again the laments of disapproval about their recent domestic practices, described unfailingly as ‘backsliding’. Nonetheless, it will be incumbent upon these governments to find means of collaborating on this agenda, portraying their commitment to common values of economic and political freedom. Preparing strenuous policies to ‘fight corruption’ (a key phrase repeated by Biden’s foreign policy team) could also provide common ground that shifts conversations away from outright mutual criticism about the means and methods of democratic governance.

Conclusion

The outlook for CEE states as President Biden begins governing remains mixed. On the one hand, bipartisan American support has begun to coalesce around the notion that their region must be accorded equal respect to Western European leaders of the EU. Tangible evidence is becoming obvious. In November 2020, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution supporting the 3SI. Furthermore, there are opportunities available to build on the Trump administration’s open, frank dialogue with CEE leaders about the future. Comments made by long-time Biden adviser Michael Carpenter, among many others, have suggested that capitalizing on these steps will produce dividends. Secretary Blinken is a strident supporter of cooperation with Europe, and his own father served as an ambassador in the CEE region. Nonetheless, spats that occurred under the Obama administration and bitter recollections about missed opportunities in the past may serve to complicate the course ahead.

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