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Why Central and Eastern Europe Will Matter for the Biden Administration

7 min read
Photo Credit: Olexander Kozak / Shutterstock
The recent presidential election in the United States has been widely expected to induce a profound change in the country’s foreign policy.

The recent presidential election in the United States has been widely expected to induce a profound change in the country’s foreign policy. While strategic priorities will largely remain unaltered during the presidency of Joe Biden, the way they are pursued may change significantly.

In contrast to Donald Trump’s often unpredictable foreign policy, which exploited strategic uncertainty and favored unilateralism, the United States’ European allies and partners expect from a Biden administration increased multilateral engagement, predictability, commitment to democratic and liberal values, and reinforced transatlantic ties. In brief, the United States is expected to return to being a stabilizing power instead of wreaking havoc on global institutions as often happened in the past four years.

In a rush to fix and renew ties that were either neglected or torn up by Trump, European countries will vie for the next administration’s attention. However, it can be safely assumed that they all will be disappointed at least to some degree. This is because the administration will be tied up with domestic priorities, containing China will remain Washington’s top priority, and there will be no quick solutions to transatlantic differences over the negative U.S. trade balance, the taxation of U.S. tech companies, and burden sharing in defense matters.

Why Central and Eastern Europe Matters

In this context, Central and Eastern Europe will matter for the Biden administration for three strategic reasons.

First, the United States cannot focus its efforts solely on the Asia-Pacific if it wants to limit China’s global influence. Just as in the Cold War, the containment of an adversary cannot be limited to its heartland. Of the regions where China’s geoeconomic and geopolitical presence increased most sharply in the past two decades—Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, and Central and Eastern Europe—the United States has the strongest positions and therefore the best chances of success in the last one. Since several countries of the region are NATO members and some of them depend heavily on U.S. security guaranties, Washington’s leverage there is stronger. If the United States fails to contain Chinese influence in Central and Eastern Europe, not only are its efforts elsewhere hopeless, this may also have repercussions on the integrity of NATO, impacting the alliance’s ability to deter Russian influence in the region as well.

Second, the transatlantic orientation of countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, or Romania can be an important asset for the United States in influencing EU positions and legislation in a wide array of issues. Although the European Commission is responsible for trade policy, complex agreements covering investment and intellectual property require the ratification of member states whose positions thus have to be taken into consideration. Through close relations with Central and Eastern European countries with a strong transatlantic orientation and less appetite for the EU’s aspirations of strategic autonomy, the United States can not only keep its finger on the pulse of EU decision making in strategic areas, but also shape European policy debates.

Third, illiberal and authoritarian developments in Central and Eastern Europe, first of all in Hungary and Poland, have pioneered the demise of Western-type liberal democracies (and serve as examples of how U.S. democracy could have deteriorated during a Trump second term). As Biden argued, restoring commitment to democracy must be a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Taking a look on Washington’s alliance system, Central and Eastern Europe is the place where the pace of democratic demise is the most alarming.

In the case of Hungary, the authoritarian turn went hand in hand with the development of increasingly cordial relations with Russia and China. Democratic backsliding does not appear to have impacted Poland’s firm transatlantic commitment, but it increases the government’s strategic unpredictability, may increase the political costs of cooperation for a Biden administration firmly committed to democratic values, and may hurt the rebuilding of U.S. soft power, which is linked to Washington’s traditional role as a global proponent of democracy.

The authoritarian developments in the region have a negative impact on the integrity of the United States’ alliance network in Europe and on U.S. credibility by leading to the rapprochement of some countries with Washington’s authoritarian competitors and fueling tensions within the continent. Addressing the democratic demise of Transatlantic partners must be a high priority for the Biden administration.

How to Deepen Partnership?

A strategy toward Central and Eastern Europe for the Biden administration should rest on the following pillars.

The United States’ diminishing geopolitical relevance in the region is mainly caused by its rather unidimensional offer. It is primarily perceived as a security provider lacking the geoeconomic weight of the EU, Russia, and China when it comes to infrastructure development, energy, and trade. The Biden administration will find it a challenge to change this without being seen as interfering in EU affairs or triggering unwanted conflicts with its main European allies. The perception that U.S. initiatives might interfere with EU policies must be avoided at all costs. 

Nevertheless, the planned U.S. contribution to the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund is a step in the right direction and should be supported by the next administration. Although the $1 billion pledged by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February is more symbolic than tangible support for sustainable infrastructure development in the region, a more significant U.S. contribution could pose a competitive threat to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Although this contribution would be inferior to the enormous EU funds that go to Central and Eastern European countries, the United States could help ensure that, with appropriate oversight and conditionality mechanisms, the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund can function free from the kind of corruption-related political interferences that often plague the use of EU funds in the region.    

Similar to the well-established cooperation of defense companies—for example, between Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin and Poland’s PZL Mielec or between Boeing and Czechia’s Aero Vodochody—U.S. firms could also play a greater role in the energy and IT sectors in Central and Eastern Europe. As even the most coal-heavy economies in the region, like Poland’s, are moving fast on the road of energy transition, there is an opportunity and need for investment. U.S. companies could play a significant role there with regard to liquefied natural gas, nuclear technology, and renewables.

As Central and Eastern European economies realize a significant part of their exports through the supply chains of large international—mostly German—companies, the region would greatly benefit from a constructive reset in transatlantic trade and investment relations. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are likely to have limited appetite for a new Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that may face vocal social opposition in the United States and Europe. However, if the United States shows itself to be ready not only to make quick fixes to trade relations but also to embrace  ambitious efforts to develop them further to benefit the economies on both sides, the Central and Eastern European countries—in contrast to certain West European countries like France—would definitely play a constructive role in the process.

Most crucially, the credibility of the United States as a global proponent of democracy must be reestablished to restore one of its most important soft-power resources. The relaunching or beefing up of U.S. programs supporting civil society and free media in Central and Eastern Europe can play an important part in this. As would, in the worst cases, exerting pressure on the region’s autocratizing regimes by sanctioning individuals engaged in large-scale political corruption or human rights abuses.

Despite the limited appetite to expand its international commitments, the United States has to reengage with its Central and Eastern European partners. The democratic demise of certain countries in the region as well as their overtures to Russia and China have their roots in the geoeconomic vacuum caused by the 2008 economic crisis, the geopolitical vacuum induced by the U.S. pivot from Europe, and the overall decreasing commitment to democratic values in the Western world. By paying more attention to Central and Eastern Europe, Joe Biden’s administration will have the opportunity to alter these trends.

This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.