From the regional perspective, Donald Trump has not been bad news but a Joe Biden administration can deliver more. By reviving multilateralism and putting trust in international institutions, Washington could rebuild the key pillars of Central Europe’s security set-up. It could also drive a wedge between Poland and Hungary on the rule of law.
For Central Europe, two things will not change after 3 November – a favourable image of the United States and support for its president. However, the outcome might as well precipitate political trouble for at least two populist governments in the region.
If it were just up to Poles to decide, Donald Trump could have a chance to be re-elected this year. For the rest of Europeans, Joe Biden seems to be the only acceptable choice.
Obviously, these preferences have no impact but they might give a sense of how many in the EU hope for a change in the White House. Also, these preferences tend to change in a predictable way.
Bets on the incumbent president
Source: Pew Research
Back in 2012, Poles also preferred the incumbent President Barack Obama over Republican contender Mitt Romney. In 2016, along with other Europeans, Central Europe was hoping for Hillary Clinton, while Donald Trump was not considered to be trustworthy.
Hence, if Donald Trump gets re-elected he is likely to be embraced by public opinion, just as well as Joe Biden would be surely welcomed as the new symbol of a powerful ally.
Public opinion often matters in shaping foreign policy but it is secondary to political leaders’ sense of what is right for their countries. Viktor Orbán has put all his bets on the incumbent president. It is not only for the ideological alignment or the ripple effect on his domestic politics.
For years, the Hungarian prime minister has been trying to gain better access to the White House and this long term investment into relationships with Republicans might just be futile should there be a major change in the United States.
Yet, Budapest, leaving diplomatic sensibility aside, is unequivocal in its support for Donald Trump. Viktor Orbán is well aware that, unlike for the Republican establishment at the beginning, he is very well known to Democrats and not very much liked there.
Moreover, Joe Biden and his entourage plan to pick a fight with the concept of ‘illiberal democracy’, exactly from where they left it in 2016.
Despite Poles’ apparent delight with Donald Trump, there is close to zero foreign policy initiative on behalf of Warsaw. This would be the good old school of not interfering in the democratic process of friendly countries but Warsaw has recently fallen short of such a diplomatic skillset.
Once more, the PiS-led government has proven itself to be unable to deliver a fully assertive position in the foreign policy area and was dragged into a pre-electoral culture war on foreign grounds.
Quiet on the international ideological front
The recent abortion law restriction goes along the lines of Geneva declaration announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the same day – with both Poland and Hungary on board – which could be read as an effort to demonstrate Donald Trump’s efficiency to the anti-abortion support base.
Contrary to what the incidental abortion issue suggests, Warsaw has not been vocal in supporting Donald Trump’s re-election because it wants to duck for possible trouble in case of a future Democratic administration.
Poland listens to the voice of American much more attentively than Hungary. By now, the government is so heavily invested in unilateral security guarantees from Washington, it is more exposed to potential shifts of policy.
For instance, the new administration may want to include the restoration of the rule of law as a condition for continued close bilateral cooperation. This argument could work in Poland but not so adequately in Hungary, where the leverage due to defence cooperation is more limited.
For Polish politics, it would also mean a lot if an American catholic was elected as a president, someone who stands firmly on issues such as human rights and climate change as well as in defence of the LGBT+ community.
Hitherto, Polish President Andrzej Duda was playing the part of a politician who is a subservient devotee of the church. In contrast, American presidents – if they wanted – have been a beacon for freedom-seeking protesters in this part of the world.
Should a Democrat take the initiative with a message of encouragement, the ongoing protests across the region might be only boosted leading to a Central European Spring 2.0 – a scenario that we devised two years ago.
Challenging the influence of Russia
Implications for political culture aside, the good news for Central Europe is that both candidates have vouched to support the Three Seas Initiative that aims at insulating the region from the Communist Party of China.
A White House led by Democrats, as opposed to Donald Trump, would also use this platform to openly challenge the influence of Russia. It must be observed that Russians are the only nation on the Eurasian continent where Trump would win decisively (see Ipsos poll).
With Joe Biden, the anti-liberal tirades of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin ideological agenda spreading across the far-right and far-left wings of European constituencies would be seriously challenged. In recent years, Moscow was merely appeased by the White House’s communication whenever it raised one of its myriad revisionist conspiracies.
Most importantly, no matter who wins the election, Central Europe will remain to America the best harbour of transatlanticism with serious political capital invested in that relationship on both sides.
Currently, Germany is verging on the side of distrust with regard to the United States. At the same time, Germany along the US has a leading role in Central and Eastern Europe as an investor but also as a broker in political and security terms. Something so obvious for Central Europeans is a fact that is often hard to digest among German elites.
The good news is that in Germany the debate has already begun with Minister of Defence Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer vouching to deliver more on the key security questions in CEE and the new US administration should take every opportunity to call cards on that with Berlin.
Add to the same package
The real task ahead of the future political leadership on all sides will be to find ways to renew commitments that go beyond what is only said or written on paper.
For Central Europe, the re-election of Donald Trump may mean more German and European attention to the Three Seas Initiative. The election of Joe Biden, on the other hand, may add to the same package a new opening on a future transatlantic trade deal and better aligned strategic communication on pan-European and American priorities.
At the end of the day, the election result in the United States is going to determine if proponents of illiberal democracy across the West have already reached a glass ceiling or the democratic security is going to be tested for another four years.
A Polish version of this article is available on Res Publica Nowa.