The special relationships that once bound the United States to the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe are all but gone, according to A. Wess Mitchell, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, and Jan Havranek, Director of the Defense Policy and Strategy Division at the Czech Ministry of Defense. The combination of faltering Euro-Atlantic institutions, struggling democracy and resurgent Russian influence could lead to bad outcomes for U.S. strategic interests down the road, they write for The American Interest.
From Warsaw to Sofia, governments in the region seem more interested in improving ties with Berlin or even Moscow than in tending links with Washington—or, for that matter, Brussels. The geopolitical story of the region today thus concerns not only a crisis of Atlanticism (in essence, the idea that culturally Western liberal democracies have enough in common to work together for mutual benefit), but European integration as well.
New “Middle Zone”
There is today a new “Middle Zone” forming in Central Europe composed of states varyingly integrated into both Atlantic and pan-European institutions that find themselves wedged between a German-led fiscal core to the west and a Russian-dominated purgatory of corrupt and compromised states to the east. This is not what either Americans or Europeans intended when Central Europe entered NATO and the European Union after the Cold War.
Atlanticism’s role is far from finished in the region. Properly revived, it can guard against the return of geopolitics, it can fight the institutional erosion that is increasingly found in the region’s still-young democracies, and it can thus cement the full array of Central Europe’s hard-won gains of the past two and a half decades. Ironic as it may seem, a revived Atlanticism can also re-forge the shield that allowed European integration to advance in the first place. But that revival will require what robust Atlanticism has always required: American leadership.
Stress Testing Central European Democracy
On the surface, democracy in the Central European core is stronger in both institutional and human terms than ever before. Every country in the region holds regular, free and open elections; mainstream parties dominate the parliaments; political debate is vibrant; and media outlets are generally free. But beneath the surface, there are worrying signs. International attention has tended to gravitate to Hungary, where the government of Viktor Orbán appears to be orchestrating a deliberate consolidation of executive power. An objective analysis of the past two and a half years would show that early concerns of a “new Putinism” in Hungary were overstated, but Orbán’s public pronouncements about the inability of parliamentary democracy to cope with periods of international turbulence echo unmistakably the nation’s interwar authoritarian past.
Less well chronicled than Hungary has been the anemic state of democracy in many other parts of Central Europe, where the latest indices show signs of steady backsliding.Most worrying are the late EU entrants Romania and Bulgaria; entrenched corruption, cronyism and government interference in the judiciary and media have brought both countries into the range of “semi-consolidated” democracies. But even the Central European core is not immune. Recent Czech elections were marred by a campaign of explicit xenophobia, with the nation’s most senior political figures invoking the nation’s ethnic divides of the 1930s. …………
In Central Europe, democracy as an idea is not in danger; in most cases, the major arteries of political freedom at both the individual and governmental levels are open and functioning. But the stresses on these systems are clearly growing, from internal sources but also because of the weakening of external drivers of reform. Coming at a moment when the integrative influences of both the European Union and NATO are at their lowest ebbs since the Cold War, these tests, one can reasonably assume, will intensify, and illiberal temptations will grow more acute than the optimists of the 1990s assumed they could.
Russian Influence and the New Eastern Frontier
The role of Russia in regional politics has increased the pressure on Central European democracy. The vacuum created by the dual crisis of Atlanticism and European integration is being readily filled by corrupt politics and subversive Russian activities, which often work in tandem. To an extent largely unrecognized in Washington, Russian influence is gaining a commanding lead in the business, energy and intelligence realms across the region…………
Further east, in the countries of the post-Soviet space, the effort to extend Western democratic norms and strategic influence has stalled. ….Whatever benefits the U.S.-Russia “reset” may have produced in strategic relations, it did not produce good results for democracy in the post-Soviet space. By appearing to prioritize gains in arms control over longstanding U.S. pressure for reform on the ground, the Obama Administration’s body language toward Moscow chilled the region’s already-embattled anti-authoritarian dissident communities.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program, with its emphasis on “more for more” in trade, aid and exchange, has also failed to incentivize reform. Given the diminishing financial and political support in Berlin and other West European capitals, it is doubtful the EaP will prove an effective template for Western engagement in the east. In strategic terms, the level of Russian influence in countries like Belarus and even Ukraine gives these countries at best “dual-use” foreign policies. The net effect of these changes has been to create a de facto reactivated geopolitical frontier along the European Union’s eastern border.
Rather than a continued eastward march of democracy or even a gray zone where a contest for influence can still be waged, the reality is increasingly that of a space devoid of democratic influence and, more often than not, one of active westward conduits funneling corruption, dependency and subversion into the Central European core.
The United States should therefore work with its European allies to devise a new strategy for strengthening the West’s strategic, economic and values-based presence in this region. In light of present budgetary constraints, this strategy will have to use creativity where it is short on cash.
Return to America’s original strategic purpose: America’s long-term aim in Central Europe has always been the same: to ensure geopolitical pluralism in the space between Germany and Russia. Its interest has been to promote a grouping of states with independent foreign policies, non-volatile economies and stable, democratic governments in order to guard against the return of the destructive twins of nationalism and geopolitics.
Keep pushing on democracy, but regain credibility first: As it strengthens the infrastructure of its power in Central Europe, the United States should also hone the attractiveness of Western democratic norms. ….Only by demonstrating staying power can Washington expect to be heard when it criticizes others on democracy. The credibility of American staying power has been depleted, and it now needs to be replenished. President Obama should travel to Warsaw in 2014 (perhaps as a layover during his trip to the Winter Olympics in Sochi) to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1989 democratic revolutions, which began in Poland.
Develop a “long game” for winning influence in the post-Soviet space: Bad as things are in Belarus and Ukraine, they will only worsen if the drift in U.S. and European policy continues. Both sides of the Atlantic now need to develop a sober picture of reality and a joint plan for leveraging what few advantages are left to them. That joint plan should combine elements of both the pre-2008 enlargement agenda and the increasingly defunct Eastern Partnership program. Half measures have failed to achieve results; only a robust program has a chance to succeed.
That program should include: targeting the next generation of leaders (a more efficient use of limited political capital that creates a new vector of influence on current, undemocratic elites); synchronizing U.S.-EU messaging on democracy and rule of law (speaking with one voice has proven effective in Belarus); coordinating U.S.-EU public diplomacy outreach to deepen the penetration of Western electronic media and expand the use of people-to-people exchanges among journalists, civil servants, scholars, students and mid-level officials; and incentivizing national governments to allow Western businesses to thrive (commercial linkages exist, but taxes, regulations and corruption are blocking opportunities to modernize regional economies).