Playing the Trump Card

What Central Europe can expect from an increasingly unpredictable administration in Washington

Marcin Zaborowski
21 March 2017

Like Kaczyński’s attempt to block Tusk’s re-election, more and more seeming impossibilities are becoming realised in this Post-Trump world.

Central Europe has had a very good quarter century since the fall of communism. They have regained their sovereignty and their sense of security while stability and prosperity have reached historic highs. The circumstances for this success are numerous, but the relative peace of Central Europe (with the exception of the Western Balkans) has rested on the region’s anchoring in NATO and its membership in the European Union.

Initially, the transformation of the region was driven by the desire to “return to Europe” as Vaclav Havel famously declared in 1989. Central Europeans looked to the West with a sense of admiration and with a clear purpose of wanting to become like their western partners.

This translated into a determination to meet the membership conditions and criteria set by NATO and the EU, which in turn had a profound effect on the processes of democratisation and liberalisation of Central European economies. In effect, Central Europeans were indeed becoming rapidly westernised.

That Awkward Stage

However, 27 years on since the fall of communism, democracy and economic liberty still remain immature and fragile in Central Europe, and as the developments in Hungary and Poland show, they may still be reversible.

While Central Europeans have achieved their dream of joining the West, at least institutionally, these same nations are now showing signs of transitional fatigue, and none of them has developed a stable political system marked by the prominence of main-stream parties and the rule of legal institutions. This is happening at a time of profound crisis for the European project and America’s flirtation with right-wing populism under the Trump presidency.

Central Europe’s fragile stability, since the end of the Cold War, has been underpinned by America’s involvement in Europe’s security and its leadership in promoting a democratic narrative. With Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States, the direction and power of both aspects have become uncertain although it remains to be seen to what extent.

To maintain their transformation, Central Europeans need stability in the European project, security against the belligerent Russia and continuing support in sustaining democratic institutions and the rule of law. Early indications of Trump’s positions on these issues are not very promising although it is also becoming clear that some of the President’s most extreme agenda is effectively moderated by the checks and balances system.

Things Can Fall Apart

As the EU has already been hit by Brexit, the refugee crisis and ongoing issues surrounding the stability of the Eurozone, it is clear that the European project is fighting for this survival. If Marine Le Pen wins the upcoming presidential elections – an unlikely but no longer an impossible prospect – it would be difficult to keep the European project together.

The ultimate disintegration of the EU would be catastrophic for Central Europe, which would be deprived of resources for its modernisation and might potentially lose access to the single market . However, the break-up of the EU could be stopped or at least moderated by the active involvement of the United States. Unfortunately, there is no indication that President Trump would be prepared to take upon himself such a responsibility. Moreover, it seems that Trump’s ambivalence and disrespect for the EU may become a contributing factor in bringing the disintegration of the EU closer.

Since the end of the Second World War, European security has rested on the direct engagement of the United States. This has been marked by the existence of NATO and underwritten by the presence of US troops in Europe and its security guarantees. Following the election, Trump has criticised NATO, calling it obsolete, whilst his Secretary of Defence words about the likelihood of “moderating” America’s commitment to the collective security has rung alarm bells across Europe. At the same time, Trump retains a strangely positive predisposition towards Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the revelations of his staff’s – including cabinet level – contacts with the Russian Ambassador are numerous and worrisome.

But the Centre May Hold

Naturally, the weakening of America’s commitment to the security of Europe would have dramatic and negative consequences for Central Europe, all of which is exposed to the threat from an increasingly belligerent Russia. Nonetheless, not all news is so negative.

As the dismissal of Trump’s pro-Russian national security advisor General Flynn suggests, there are effective breaks in the American system that are stopping the pendulum from swinging to radically in one direction. This was followed by the reinstatement of America’s commitment to the European allies as delivered by Vice-President Pence and Secretary of Defence Mattis at the Munich Security Conference in February 2017.

Trump also did not halt the US’s and NATO’s deployment to Poland and the Baltic States. As a result, under President Trump the Eastern flank of NATO will in effect enjoy the biggest presence of the allied forces since these nations joined the alliance. In short, whilst Trump made it clear that he is ambivalent about NATO, it seems that the change in US’s attitude towards European security may in fact turn out to be insignificant.

Finally, there is a question mark as to Trump administration’s attitude towards supporting democracy in Central Europe. Whilst Obama’s State Department was outspoken about the violations of media freedoms in Hungary and the questions about the rule of law in Poland, there is no indication that Trump’s team would be prepared to take an equally principled stance.

In fact, it would seem logical that Trump’s team would refrain from criticising illiberal practices in Central Europe. Trump made it quite clear during his campaign that he will not be driven by values in his foreign policy and would not differentiate between liberal and illiberal regimes. For example, he famously stated that he would consider Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin as equally valuable partners.

Moreover, Trump’s own domestic war with liberal media, such as New York Times, Washington Post and CNN, which are also critical of illiberal practices in Central Europe, may in fact suggest that there is a potential for sympathy developing between Trump’s team and illiberal rulers in Central Europe.

Altogether, it seems that Central Europe would be wise to brace itself for the arrival of the administration that is at best indifferent to the strategic value of the European Union, lukewarm towards NATO and uninterested in supporting democracy in the region.

In less turbulent times, Trump’s attitude towards Europe would not need to be of major consequence for Central Europe. As argued here, although Trump and his team might have flirted with an idea of undermining European integration and transatlantic relations, there are effective breaks within the American system that prevent a too radical departure from the path of continuity.

Even though times are tempestuous – there is hope that America’s new president will refrain from the actions that intentionally endanger Europe’s fragile stability. However, there is also the strong possibility that Trump’s policies will undermine Central Europe’s core interests.

Marcin Zaborowski is Senior Associate at Visegrad Insight.