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What the incoming Biden administration means for Central and Eastern Europe

Democracies are defined by the holding of regular elections that are free and fair, resulting in an alternation of leaders and the orderly transition of power. A central characteristic of this process is that while electoral outcomes are unpredictable, the manner in which politicians are replaced is highly routinised. Donald Trump, however, is a maverick and rule-breaker the likes of which the United States has never seen before.

February 3, 2021 - George Soroka - Hot TopicsIssue 1-2 2021Magazine

George Soroka is a lecturer in the Department of Government at Harvard University, where he is also affiliated with the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Photo courtesy of George Soroka

Trump has challenged the results of the 2020 US presidential election via the legal system and in the court of public opinion, his actions culminating in the deadly riot that took place on January 6th 2021 at the US Capitol Building. But while planting seeds of doubt concerning the veracity of the vote in the minds of his followers may well cause long-lasting damage to the institutions of American democracy and sully the country’s image abroad, it will not change the reality that Joseph Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on January 20th 2021.

Biden certainly has his job cut out for him. Domestically, he will inherit a country more polarised than it has been since at least the time of the Vietnam War and the 1960s civil rights movement. On the international front, meanwhile, Biden will face the need to rebuild partnerships with key European allies such as France and Germany that have been heavily strained over the course of the last four years. Moreover, despite Democrats eking out control of the Senate by the narrowest of margins as a result of the January 2021 runoff elections in Georgia, Biden’s party actually lost seats in the House of Representatives this electoral cycle (though it still controls the lower chamber). The extent to which the incoming president’s plans will be opposed by Republican legislators remains to be seen, but it is surely not a good sign that vocal elements in both parties have espoused increasingly radicalized and uncompromising stances.   

Therefore, while we should expect to see meaningful shifts in Washington’s foreign policy positions with the new Biden administration, there will be limits as to what it can accomplish given an extremely partisan political landscape. It is likewise worth noting that President Biden may find it expedient to keep certain policies that Trump implemented, such as insisting Europe assume more responsibility for its own security, which would include pressuring Germany and other NATO member states to shoulder a greater financial burden for the continent’s defence.

Nevertheless, Biden is clearly and emphatically not Trump, which no doubt has European leaders like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron breathing a sigh of relief. Unlike his mercurial predecessor, who proved himself both incurious and intemperate when it came to foreign policy, Biden is an experienced politician, well-versed in the diplomatic arts. He is also much more of an internationalist than Trump, who unapologetically built his brand on the slogan “America first”.

What specifically will the Biden presidency mean for the members of the Visegrád Group (known as the V4, its members include the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) and its immediate neighbours? Much, of course, remains uncertain, particularly in the midst of a global pandemic the end of which is still not in sight. Outlined below, however, are the four main arenas that the Biden administration is expected to prioritise when it comes to this region. In large measure, the attendant policy preferences will not mark a novel reset in thinking so much as a reversion to an Obama-era paradigm, although conditions have obviously changed since 2016 and will require adjustments to match.

Liberal democratic ideals

During his first address as president elect on November 7th 2020, Biden emphasised a United States that “would lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” To this end, he promised to convene a global Summit for Democracy soon after his inauguration, signalling that, for him, rebuilding America’s international standing is significantly predicated on regaining its moral authority on the global stage. While such a didactic position will undoubtedly be tested by the vicissitudes of high politics, Biden’s rhetoric unambiguously links the status of the United States to Washington’s support for human rights and peoples’ self-determination (and, by extension, anti-corruption initiatives) around the world.

Placing renewed emphasis on the above principles will deal a blow to relations with right-wing populists such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Andrzej Duda in Poland. Relatedly, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia have not experienced the same level of illiberal politics as the other two V4 states (though they have hardly been immune to manifestations of assertive ethno-nationalism), they have long been mired in corruption scandals. Biden’s administration will certainly be less reticent than that of his predecessor to call out such violations of democratic norms and to hold violators accountable. The same applies to Russia’s wide-ranging disinformation campaigns and the Kremlin’s meddling in the electoral processes of other states. Indicative of this, Biden supports the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a multilateral initiative founded in 2018 (it is co-chaired by former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff) to address external interference in western elections.

European co-operation

We can also expect the new Biden administration to recommit the US to supporting the European Union and to push for reinvigorating co-operation across the continent. In this regard, Germany will once again become central to US policy, which will have implications for internal relations within the EU, especially as this pertains to the animosity evinced between Warsaw and Berlin. Given such episodes as Hungary and Poland attempting to block the adoption of the EU’s budget for 2021-2027 – along with the disbursal of 750 billion euros earmarked for pandemic relief and stimulus – due to disagreements the governments of these two states have with Brussels over the implementation of stricter rule of law criteria, Washington will assuredly pressure the politicians of Law and Justice and Fidesz to respect democratic principles and safeguard the project of European integration, from which the economies of Hungary and Poland have benefitted greatly in the last two decades.

However, while the United States has more leverage over Poland than Hungary, Biden would be well advised to not disengage from either Warsaw or Budapest. Instead, Washington should express its concern over the xenophobic and anti-liberal tendencies exhibited by Polish and Hungarian leaders but leave room for substantive and constructive engagement. One avenue might be to reiterate Washington’s support for the Three Seas Initiative, which seeks to complement the EU’s presence in Central and Eastern Europe by deepening economic and transportation ties along a north-south axis.  

More broadly, the US can resume acting as an honest broker in the region, incentivising European states and the EU to formulate a more coherent and unified response to geopolitical challenges like the ongoing anti-Lukashenko protests in Belarus and the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan that broke out last year in Nagorno-Karabakh. This would fulfil a much-needed mediatory function, as Europe as a whole has thus far been slow and scattered in its response to such crises.  

Geopolitical security

In June 2019, Biden referred to NATO as “the single most consequential alliance in the history of the United States”. The president elect has also been a consistent and vocal critic of Vladimir Putin, chiding him for both Russian interference in US domestic matters and the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy, including as it pertains to the post-communist space. In this respect, the new administration will be a staunch ally to Poland and other erstwhile Warsaw Pact polities that oppose Moscow’s pretension to a sphere of privileged regional influence. At the same time, given Biden’s expected reorientation to Germany, the US is unlikely to increase troop levels in Poland, a measure that both the Trump administration and the current government in Warsaw supported. On the contrary, the Biden camp has pledged to review Trump’s decision to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany.

Consequently, we should anticipate that political and ideological lines of confrontation between the US and EU, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, will harden in the coming years, with the fate of states like Belarus and Ukraine hanging in the balance. But the opportunity to achieve at least a “cold peace” between Moscow and a rejuvenated transatlantic alliance will remain. A significant step in this direction could be the renewal of the New Start Treaty, which both Putin and Biden support. Originally implemented on February 5th 2011, this US-Russian agreement, which limits the number of deployed nuclear warheads as well as their delivery systems, is set to expire in early 2021. Renewing it for another ten-year term would send a positive signal that wary co-operation is still possible with Moscow despite all the geopolitical drama of the last decade. However, whether such efforts can be extended to address other problematic issues, like Russia’s dissemination of malignant propaganda in the region via television and social media channels, remains to be seen.

Energy policy

Datingback to his time as Vice President in the Obama administration, Biden has championed the diversification of Europe’s energy sources as a means by which to promote energy security and curb Moscow’s influence. More recently, he has come out against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline being laid underneath the Baltic Sea to supply Russian gas to Germany, labelling it a “fundamentally bad deal for Europe”. Instead, the new US president will support such projects as thedevelopment of the Southern Gas Corridor, intended to reduce Europe’s energy dependence on the Russian Federation by supplying natural gas from the Caspian basin and Middle East.

Biden has likewise indicated that he takes climate change seriously, pledging to re-authorise America’s participation in the Paris Agreement on his first day in office. This policy position will also impact Central and Eastern Europe, which has had trouble weaning itself away from coal. Although proposals to ship American-produced LNG to the region on a commercial scale are logistically far-fetched and economically impractical, there is little doubt that during Biden’s tenure Washington will be sympathetic to various green and alternative energy proposals.  

In conclusion, the incoming Biden administration will, in all probability, have several significant implications for the V4 states and Central and Eastern Europe more generally. First, bilateral relations with Washington of the sort enjoyed by Warsaw during the Trump years will be downplayed in favour of more concerted and comprehensive Europe-wide policies. Second, US relations with France and especially Germany will be prioritised, providing incentives for the V4 states to follow suit. Third, the need to support and strengthen NATO will be foregrounded, as the US will take a hardline stance against Moscow and its growing geopolitical ambitions. Finally, containing Russia and encouraging a deepening of European solidarity will not only have strategic military implications, but will also affect other sectors, such as those related to energy and communications.     

George Soroka is a lecturer in the Department of Government at Harvard University, where he is also affiliated with the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, and the Institute for Quantitative Social Science.

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