Under the Biden administration, the EU stands to have an ally against authoritarian tendencies in some Central and Eastern European countries, writes Veronica Anghel. But US involvement will not be transformative
Biden’s declared interest to recommit the US to its role as a global supporter of democracy is likely to refocus State Department officials’ attention on falling standards of democracy in Poland and Hungary, and the stagnating anti-corruption fight in Romania and Bulgaria.
But most US policies affecting Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries will be contingent on wider US-EU relations, and few will address the region specifically. Instead, they will concentrate on balancing competition from other actors, particularly Russia and China.
The transatlantic relationship has undergone long-running transformations under the auspices of independent global processes, with implications that go beyond the policies of the former Trump administration.
The change of leadership in the White House will not create a more empathetic and less self-referential United States. However, a Biden presidency will differ markedly in its foreign policy strategy from the administration led by Trump.
a Biden presidency will differ markedly in its foreign policy strategy from the administration led by Trump
The Biden foreign policy agenda will rely less on unilateral decisions tending towards isolationism, but it will continue to be opportunistic. It will use to its benefit the disproportionate military and economic power of the United States relative to the EU. This is also valid for CEE countries, which have faded from the US foreign policy agenda under successive administrations, and will not regain centre stage.
Washington’s standing in the region will depend on progress in mending its loss of ‘soft power’ during the Trump years. According to a Pew Research Center survey released in September 2020, since Donald Trump took office, the image of the United States has suffered, declining steeply over the past year as a result of his poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Pre-election polls released in 2020 showed Biden was Europeans’ favoured candidate by significant margins in most European countries except Poland. His personal connections and experience in CEE countries during his mandate as US vice president provide him with some diplomatic advantages in swaying Europeans’ hearts and minds.
there are strong signals that Biden does not intend an isolationist agenda, and will engage with issues related to minority rights
However, Biden will be largely tied up in domestic affairs. The brunt of the foreign policy work will be carried by the diplomatic corps representing US interests in CEE capitals. As such, the importance of the US diplomatic corps in pushing Biden’s liberal values agenda in Eastern Europe will be magnified.
The selection of Antony Blinken as secretary of state sends a strong signal that Biden does not intend to have an isolationist agenda and will engage with issues related to minority rights. We should also expect more coherence in US rhetoric on foreign policy issues, and fewer divided messages from State Department representatives and the White House.
The Trump administration was a stress test for NATO. Biden will resume the Obama-era strategy posture that ‘NATO nations never stand alone’ and will reaffirm Article 5. However, he will also continue to call on NATO members to ‘recommit to their responsibilities’ and increase their defence spending.
Owing to their proximity to Russia, CEE countries were already quicker to spend more on defence and show their financial commitment to NATO. Within the region, Romania, together with the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, stand out as remaining purely committed to transatlanticism in their foreign policy. Together with Poland, they are also the biggest spenders on defence as a percentage of GDP. The strength of the Romanian-US strategic partnership could grow, amplified by Poland’s increasing unreliability as America's main CEE ally.
During his campaign, Biden prioritised restoring a commitment to democracy as the core of the US foreign affairs agenda. In his Foreign Affairs campaign manifesto, he also committed to return the United States to its role as ‘leader of the democratic world’.
Biden will support democratic standards in Central and Eastern European countries, but to little effect
Contingently, the hybrid regimes of CEE countries and their national-populist leaders are likely to feel the pressure of US-style calls for respect for the rule of law. During his vice presidency, Biden visited CEE countries, speaking against corruption and in favour of the consolidation of democratic institutions, with an emphasis on the independence of the judiciary. However, applying such pressures today are not likely to have similarly strong effects. Advances made by governments in such countries as Poland and Hungary have formalised a disequilibrium in the rule of law.
The smaller CEE countries do not have strong economic or political ties with non-Western states such as China, India and Russia. But Chinese influence in the region has increased. Hungary and Serbia have been the most active in developing more cordial relations with China, to bolster their negotiating position with the EU.
The US will try to counteract China’s increasing investment and reputational capital in the rest of the region. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment reached by the EU and China will be a point of contention between it and the EU. But this agreement will start by boosting trade and investment with Western Europe before the benefits trickle down to the East.
To counteract Chinese presence in Europe, the Biden administration is also likely to support the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund as a counterweight to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has pledged a billion dollars to this fund, which aims to create more economic convergence in the twelve CEE countries bordering the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas.
With the United States once more on its side, the EU could strengthen its climate change agenda. CEE countries, for which this has not been an important policy focus, will now be under more pressure to deliver policy change.
In achieving his goal to recondition US standing and influence in the world, Biden will identify traditional European democracies as the most stable and legitimate allies. There is no reason to believe Eastern Europe will feature high on Biden’s agenda, but we can expect to see his administration aiming to balance security commitments in the region with the promotion of liberal values such as democracy, human rights, anti-corruption measures, and the rule of law.
Biden's agenda on Russia, China and climate change will collaterally influence the policies of these countries, but the changes will be incremental. The EU remains the main influencer on the democratisation process of CEE countries.