America can influence democratic standards in Central Europe more effectively than any other external power. It is high time the United States speaks up about the rule of law and democracy.

The four years of Trump’s administration have coincided with the major drop in democratic standards in Central Europe, to which the United States has remained indifferent.

Today, Hungary is no longer a functioning democracy and Poland is quickly nearing this point. Romania and Bulgaria, both of which are hosting US bases, have violated the rule of law on numerous occasions whilst Czechia, Slovakia and Slovenia have seen their level of corruption rise. Governments are dominated by shady politicians with extensive business interests.

Many countries in the region, Hungary in particular, have started to drift towards the Russian sphere of influence and getting cosy with Beijing. This is encouraging Chinese investments and stops the EU from condemning human rights violations in China.

In the last four years, the US approach towards the region has been devoid of values and focused exclusively on security considerations and business interests. The overtly transactional aspect of the Trump administration’s policy in the region is hurting America’s image and its prestige. This approach should be rethought.

The administration’s interests in security co-operation with Central European states should be sustained but also enriched by the factor of values because the two are intrinsically connected. The vast majority of Central Europeans are grateful for America’s role in ending communism and are looking up to Washington.

The US should use its unparalleled influence in Central Europe to promote democracy and the rule of law as it used to do.

Let America be American again

Lech Wałęsa and George H.W. Bush

It is widely acknowledged that the United States won the Cold War, which enabled in Central Europe transitions to democracy and the free-market economy. However, what is less known is the impact that America subsequently had in guiding and helping the transition efforts after the end of the Cold War.

In Poland, for example, the administration of George H. Bush aided the process of transition to the free market economy in a defining manner in the early 1990s. Poland’s successful ‘shock therapy’, a radical and speedy departure from a centrally planned to an open economy, was in major parts designed by Jeffrey Sachs and Anthony Blinken, two high-profile American advisors dispatched by Washington.

Following the end of communism, the US Congress passed the Support for East European Democracies Act (SEED Act), which provided funds for programmes aimed at developing market economy and institutions necessary for democracy, including those upholding the rule of law.

The administration of Bill Clinton was the first one to embrace the goal of NATO’s eastern enlargement, which, at the time, was deeply controversial amongst the alliance’s other members and also in the US Congress. Enlargement had from the outset a strong normative component, because of its aim of being first and foremost about stability and consolidation of democracy in Central Europe.

One of the conditions for the candidate states was the introduction of civilian and democratic oversight over the armed forces, which prompted radical reforms in several aspiring states, for example in Poland. The administration of George W. Bush applied the same mechanism towards further enlargements of NATO, which were important in prompting security sector reforms in Romania, Bulgaria and Albania.

The pressure to buy American

The administration of Barack Obama did not hesitate to criticise the diversion from the democratic path in Hungary and Poland. Obama’s State Department in plain words criticised the passage of the new media law in Hungary that re-introduced censorship.

During the Warsaw’s NATO summit Obama himself criticised the assault on Poland’s Constitutional Court by the Law and Justice government. However, with the arrival of Donald Trump, any pressure on Central European governments to maintain functioning democracy standards ceased and were replaced with pressure to buy American products.

As Poland’s President Andrzej Duda paid his visit to the White House in June 2019, President Trump was asked at the press conference about his position on the violation of the rule of law and problems with democracy in Poland. Trump responded that “there is no problem with democracy in Poland” and that he is “not concerned, at all”.

After the Presidents left the conference room they walked into the White House garden staring at the skies through which flew the newest F-35 fighter, in a display organised to impress Poland’s commander-in-chief. A few months later, Poland announced its intention to purchase 32 F-35 fighters for 4.6 billion dollars, off-the-shelf with no production relocated to Poland and without a public tender.

Trump’s administration also abandoned any criticism of the authoritarian rule of Hungary’s Victor Orbán. Since Orbán’s White House visit in May 2019, diplomatic relations have been cordial and warm between these two leaders. During their press conference, Trump lavished praise at Victor Orbán, describing him as:

“Highly respected. Respected all over Europe. Probably like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s O.K. You’ve done a good job, and you’ve kept your country safe”.

Prior to the visit, Hungary and the US signed a bilateral security co-operation agreement, which facilitates the presence of US and NATO troops on the Hungarian soil. Following the agreement, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó declared that his government “applauds” how the current US administration treats his country and Central Europe as a whole, which he described as a drastic departure from the previous administration.

A few months later, in August 2019, Hungary announced its decision to buy 180 anti-aircraft missiles from the US maker Raython for 500 million dollars. The decision was immediately approved by the US State Department.  In the last two years, several Central European nations purchased US defence equipment or announced their decision to do so.

Romania has already bought fighter jets F-16 and missile defence from Raython. Bulgaria announced its decision to buy F-16 fighters. Both these nations are hosting sizable US military presence and both of them have major problems with the rule of law and rampant corruption.

The former Slovak government, which had to step down following the scandal linking a murder of journalist to several government figures, concluded a deal for buying F-16 jets for 800 million dollars.

A perception has been growing around the region that as long as American business interests are satisfied, the White House will remain silent about the deterioration of democratic standards in Central Europe. This perception is hurtful to America’s image in the region and it is denting the US’s leadership abilities in Europe.

Moreover, it is doing an injustice to America’s past investments in promoting healthy democracies in Europe. It is time for the US to return to a more normative agenda in Central Europe and beyond.

Conclusion and recommendations

America can influence democratic standards in Central Europe more effectively than any other external power. The US is equipped both with the instruments of soft and hard power in its relations with Central European government.

US prestige in Central Europe is still unparalleled. The sense of gratitude for the end of the Cold War and the continuing infatuation with the American way of life and its international status still mean that most governments in the region want to be on the good side of America.

Any criticism of domestic rulers emanating from the US rings much louder than criticisms from the EU or any other country in the world. It can hurt regional autocrats while empowering defenders of democracy.

But there are also material instruments of influence in place. Poland, for example, has lobbied for years for an enhanced security co-operation with the US and a presence of US troops on its soil. If the US conditioned such co-operation with arguments of a normative nature, helping to sustain democratic institutions in Poland, there is little doubt that whatever government in power, it would be forced to comply.

The sale of US defence equipment to Central European states should be conditioned on them meeting essential standards of democracy. Such a condition could be introduced not only by the White House but also by the US Congress because it needs to approve the sale of essential defence equipment.

Thirty years since the end of the Cold War, America’s leadership is once again needed in Central Europe. It is essential that future US administrations will stop turning a blind eye on the deteriorating standards of democracy in Central Europe.



This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

Visegrad Insight Senior Associate and Editor-in-Chief of Res Publica Nowa. He is the Former Executive Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in Warsaw. In 2001, he received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Birmingham in the UK.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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