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Transatlantic Take

Why the U.S. Presidential Election Matters for Central and Eastern Europe

5 min read
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Central and Eastern European Perspectives on the U.S. Election

Central and Eastern European Perspectives on the U.S. Election

The world’s attention is captivated by the upcoming presidential election in the United States. While the outcome of the race for the White House will hardly change U.S. strategic priorities, according to most observers, it may well alter the way in which Washington pursues its foreign policy goals.

The stakes could not be higher. The American electorate will determine whether the next administration revives the U.S. commitment to multilateralism or continues to pursue unilateral action and a transactional foreign policy, and whether Washington returns to the role of a norm-setter stabilizing the global system or becomes even more of a disruptor.

Given the global role of the United States, significant shifts in its foreign policy have particularly strong and multifaceted implications in contested geopolitical spaces such as Central and Eastern Europe. Divided between EU and non-EU, NATO and non-NATO countries, the former communist half of Europe sees its international and domestic political dynamics impacted and shaped by the geopolitical interests of the EU, the United States, Russia and—increasingly—China. Consequently, the U.S. election, whatever its result, will have serious repercussions for the domestic and foreign policy of Central and Eastern European countries.

The mounting tensions between the EU and the United States under the Trump administration to date put significant pressure on these countries, committed as they are to European integration and to transatlantic partnership. Yet souring U.S. relations with the EU and key Western European countries put this duality in question and presented European countries further east with the dilemma of prioritizing one or the other. A Joe Biden win is widely expected to provide a new impetus to transatlantic cooperation, thus easing pressures on Central and Eastern European countries to take sides. By contrast Donald Trump’s re-election would likely only deepen the dilemma and cause serious rifts within the EU and NATO. This will be felt most strongly in countries that are heavily dependent on U.S. security guarantees and support, including many in Central and Eastern Europe.

An improving political climate between the United States and Europe, as many expect under a Biden administration, would bridge the rifts between the agendas of European integration and transatlantic cooperation as they have emerged under the Trump administration. One effect of this reconciliation may well be that key regional concerns in Central and Eastern Europe—from the aggressiveness of and energy dependency on Russia to China’s increasing presence in the region—find themselves elevated on the transatlantic and the European political agenda. This will enhance security in this particularly vulnerable part of Europe and provide a boost to the legitimacy. The contest between Biden and Trump is also certainly part of a broader ideological clash between the paradigm of liberal democracy and its illiberal and—overtly or covertly—authoritarian challengers. Central and Eastern Europe has become a heartland of the recent rise of illiberalism. Its further evolution in the region will be shaped by the U.S. presidential election. It will have a direct impact on the domestic political dynamics of individual countries, on their democratic development or demise, and on their standing on the European as well as transatlantic stage. Depending on the outcome of the election, illiberal actors in Central and Eastern Europe will feel emboldened by seeing themselves as part of a firm global trend or they will feel their momentum weaken, face stronger pushback to their anti-democratic policies, and risk marginalization within the transatlantic community.

In the same vein, many expect a Biden administration would partially revitalize U.S. engagement in Central and Eastern Europe. That would likely manifest itself in continued or even expanded security commitments at Europe’s eastern flank. Just as importantly, a revival of U.S. democracy assistance in the region can be hoped for that would put additional pressure on semi-authoritarian and illiberal actors. This would open new prospects for embattled democracies in Central Europe and fledgling ones in the east of the continent.

Closely related is, depending on the outcome of the election, a changing U.S. approach to Russia and its destructive role across Central and Eastern Europe. A Biden administration would likely pursue a more assertive policy toward the Kremlin and may force Russian course corrections in relation to the West broadly, and to Central and Eastern Europe in particular. Whether on the hot conflict in Ukraine, the frozen one in Georgia, or the emerging one in Belarus, Russia may feel inclined to present a more constructive face to build inroads with the new U.S. administration. Just as possibly, however, it may decide to challenge a more determined approach by the United States, whose limits it has a plenty of opportunity to test in Central and Eastern Europe.

In these and many more respects, the U.S. presidential election will send ripples through Europe’s eastern half. To explore the possible implications for regional dynamics, domestic developments, and the international position of Central and Eastern Europe, the German Marshall Fund of the United States launches a series of country perspectives. Up until election day, local experts will present the concerns and expectations of countries in the region. Taken together, this will provide a panorama of the shared or specific hopes and anxieties felt in Central and Eastern European countries as one of their key international partners makes its political choice.

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.