Did the War Undercut the Summit for Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe?

March 24, 2023
The second Summit for Democracy takes place on March 29-30, convened jointly by Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United Sates, and Zambia.

The United States hosted the first summit in December 2021, fulfilling Joe Biden’s campaign promise that his administration would “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.” The governments participating then were expected to fulfill their summit commitments in a “year of action” up to the second meeting.

Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has meant that this period for implementing the Summit for Democracy process has been one of war. The conflict has dominated the international agenda and used up a large amount of policy capacity for the United States and for its European allies. This context inevitably shapes any assessment of the flagship initiative to flesh out Biden’s democracy agenda.

The Biden administration has framed the war as confirming its rhetoric of international politics being shaped by a conflict between democracy and autocracy. Certainly, it is a clear case of an autocratic regime aggressing unprovoked a neighbor attempting to consolidate its democracy. It would be an irony—if probably a predictable one—if the war ended up undermining the administration’s effort to revive the democracy agenda in this region and the US role in support of it.

Overall, despite several positives, the picture is not bright.

In December 2021, Joerg Forbrig and I edited a GMF collection of views from experts in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) to gauge expectations of the Summit for Democracy and of US democracy support in their countries. Sixteen months later, I surveyed our contributors to find out if these expectations were met and how the war in Ukraine had affected US democracy engagement in the region. Overall, despite several positives, the picture is not bright.

Four broad points emerge when looking back at the fifteen months since the first Summit for Democracy across a region directly affected by the war and in which the United States has taken renewed interest.

Pessimism about Democracy Mostly

In some CEE countries, the democracy situation looks better today than it did in December 2021. In others, the picture is mixed. But there is pessimism about the direction in which things are heading in the majority. In these countries, the situation has either not improved or deteriorated when it comes to issues such as corruption, state capture, threats to the independent media, polarization, and domestic and foreign disinformation.

In a minority of CEE countries, not least Ukraine, civil society is playing a bigger role and gaining more recognition, but these are exceptions. In some, a still active civil society is giving a grace period to relatively new, more democracy-oriented governments. But the reform efforts of these governments are either slow, hitting obstacles, or running out of momentum. Meanwhile, in many countries there is disillusion about the state of civil society and its ability to drive democratic progress, with governments either ignoring it or attacking it.

Some of our experts also express a fear that the United States is underestimating their country’s democratic vulnerability and the risk that things could get worse.

Security before Democracy Mostly

The war caused by Russia’s kleptocratic autocracy would appear to confirm the systemic relevance of the democracy agenda the Biden administration set out in 2021, and offered an opportunity to merge this with the US security agenda more than previously. But in practice this has not quite been the case when it comes to several CEE countries. In some cases, there has been no trade-off between US security and democracy goals, but in many there is a degree of tension between the two.

Some of our experts note the negative image that is produced by the United States showing warmer relations with some not-so-democratic governments in the context of war-related diplomacy and in the interest of not worsening regional stability. On the other hand, some governments have been more mindful of Washington’s democracy concerns as they do not want to be seen by their security guarantor as going against its security interests.

In some cases, there has been no trade-off between US security and democracy goals, but in many there is a degree of tension between the two.

In this revival of a traditional dilemma for US policy, as in everything, the region is no monolith. In some frontline states in the war, there is little or no tension between more US security engagement and the administration’s democracy goals. In the Balkans, there is disappointment at what is seen as soft treatment of Serbia’s government for stability reasons, which risks making the United States look hypocritical when talking about democracy. In the South Caucasus, there are similar concerns with Washington seen as prioritizing stabilizing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict over democracy issues in Armenia and Azerbaijan, or as putting Georgia’s precarious geopolitical position ahead of its political problems.

More US Engagement but Due to the War

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency, or even in a longer perspective, US engagement in Central and Eastern Europe has grown significantly since the first Summit for Democracy. For the region’s democracy activists who had hoped for this and welcomed the Biden administration’s initiative, even if they often did not have high expectations of it, the fact that the greater US presence is mostly due to the war creates a glass-half-full situation. The war may have “torpedoed,” in the words of one expert, the US democracy framing for some CEE countries, while in others the United States “is our checks and balances,” to quote another.

Washington’s new engagement in the region comes with a democracy component, but also in many cases with old questions about its priorities. In line with a long historical precedent, the United States has been able to take a tougher democracy line with governments less relevant to the war effort or with weaker political actors. With many countries, the Biden administration has taken diplomatic action, offered moral support, and launched new programs targeting rule-of-law problems, corruption, and weakness of independent media. But, in some the United States is seen as doing too little or moving too slowly. Another historical pattern that is evident is the important difference that individual US ambassadors and embassy staff can make in furthering or not an administration’s democracy agenda.

And, ultimately, while the United States’ greater engagement in CEE is welcome, there is a lingering question as to how long this will last, which raises the issue of the sustainability of any of its democracy benefits. This could depend on the course of the war, a change of administration in Washington, or a US need to place a higher priority on Asia—or a combination of the three.

Good US Intentions but Weak Execution

Overall, the consensus among our experts is that the Biden administration’s agenda with the Summit for Democracy has been well-intentioned and brought some positives in Central and Eastern Europe but has been weakly executed. What is more, it is not clear that this can be attributed simply to the war in Ukraine taking place simultaneously.

For many of our experts, there has been more words than action by Washington in the whole process, which has also been too technocratic and government-centric. Some say the process has also been too concentrated in the hands of the White House and the State Department. In many countries, the “year of action”—to the extent that there has been genuine action by their governments on commitments made at the first Summit for Democracy—has involved civil society only superficially. In the words of one expert, “this has just been box-ticking to please Washington.”

In many countries, the 'year of action' has involved civil society only superficially.

A more critical view is that the initiative has turned out to be a non-issue for the CEE countries, compared to the attention it received back in December 2021. In this reading, whether due to the overwhelming need to deal with the war in Ukraine or to other shortcomings, the Biden administration has been unable to shape and sell a narrative around the Summit for Democracy process for the region. And if, as is rumored, the United States does not intend to be a co-host of an eventual third instalment in 2024, this does not look promising for any lasting impact of the process on democracy in the region.