What America’s ‘return’ to continuity means for Central Europe?

The last two weeks showed Trump acting Presidential

Marcin Zaborowski
11 April 2017

Last couple of weeks have been disappointing for preachers of Trump revolution in the US and abroad, Central Europe included. Naturally, news has been dominated by Trump’s dramatic u-turn on Syria, the bombing of the airbase in response to Assad forces’ chemical attack and the deployment of US carrier to the Korean waters. As US missiles were hitting targets in Syria, Trump was hosting Chinese President at the event marked by his granddaughter’s singing in Mandarin. In short, the last two weeks showed Trump acting Presidential. He showed decisiveness in Syria and Korea and moderation towards China.

What has been less noticed is America’s return to value-based approach towards Central Europe, as evident in the strong position of the State Department towards Victor Orban’s assault on Central European University in Budapest. The statement produced by Trump’s State Department is no different in tone from the former statements criticizing the state of democracy in Hungary during the Obama administration. It is also clear that the lobbying of Central European University’s President Michael Ignatieff in US Congress is bringing results and in effect Orban’s hitting at the CEU is seen in the US as an assault on democracy.

As the style of Trump’s Presidency is materializing it is becoming increasingly clear that nothing can be taken for granted in predicting the President’s actions. In his first month of Presidency Trump announced a series of actions that suggested a dramatic departure from the core tradition of US foreign policy. He was disparaging of NATO and the EU, announced America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, questioned one-China policy and repeated a threat to impose putative tariffs on Chinese goods. Ever since these bombastic statements were made not much happened to suggest that they would be actually implemented. Whilst Trump continued to lambast NATO the last months have seen the largest deployment of US presence to the Eastern flank of the alliance since its foundation. Trump confirmed that US respects one-China policy and so far no putative tariffs have been imposed. Whilst Trump condemned Obama for considering a military action in response to chemical attack in Syria in 2015 it was under his term that America actually undertook a military action against the Assad regime.

As u-turns and policy reversals are becoming a trademark of Trump’s foreign policy talk, there is more and more continuity creeping in actual policy implementation. There are several powerful factors underpinning this trend. After few months of being in office Trump seems to have finally discovered that the process of governing is different from the process of electioneering. In addition, the chaos of Trump’s administration favours return to continuity. The White House is still torn between Trump’s worldly son-in-law Kuchner and nationalizing racism-prone Steve Bannon but it’s the latter rather than the former that seems to have the upper hand. After the unhappy episode with Putin’s stooge General Flynn the National Security Council is now lead by experienced Atlanticist General McMaster. The State Department, led by diplomatic novice Rex Tillerson, reverses to policy positions based on the experience acquired during former administrations.

This is not to say that Trump’s foreign policy will be no different from that of his predecessor’s. If one thing is clear about this President it is his unpredictability in foreign affairs. The recent policy shift on Syria does not in actual fact change facts on the ground and it may be short-lived if Trump discovers that it does not sufficiently bump up his flagging popularity.

But whilst the spectacular foreign policy items like Syria, Korea and China may be subject to further u-turns and policy reversals it is most likely that policy positions towards Central Europe will be ruled by continuity in which democracy-promotion will occupy a meaningful place. As Central Europe is no longer a first-tier issue in US foreign affairs, policy positions towards the region will be determined by State Department bureaucracy, which is guided by traditional liberal and pro-democracy instincts.

Marcin Zaborowski is Senior Associate at Visegrad Insight.