Mike Pompeo must strengthen diplomacy with Central Europe

Normally, a visit by the top United States diplomat to capitals of Central European allies would be mostly a sequence of courtesy calls, but these are not normal times. There is much at stake during the visit of Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan Japan's Hormuz dilemma The Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? MORE to Budapest, Bratislava, and Warsaw all this week.

Hungary, his first stop, is largely a lost cause. Although Viktor Orban is attuned to the Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE brand of politics, his government has also been an extremely unreliable ally. In recent months, Hungary has acted against American interests at a variety of junctures. It has expelled the New York incorporated Central European University from Budapest in spite of American protests. It has sent the Lyubishins, or Russian arms dealers, back to Russia instead of extraditing them to the United States. It has also sabotaged the accession of Ukraine to NATO and the European Union, and openly flirted with the idea of neutrality, presumably as an alternative to its own membership in NATO and the European Union.

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Across Central Europe, the currents of local politics go hand in hand with a distrust of the United States and an embrace of authoritarianism and Russia. Poland, a staunch American ally, may seem like an exception, but even there American Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher has appeared exasperated by the government attacks on the free press. Moreover, the nationalist government may not survive the parliamentary elections this fall. The Trump administration thus faces the urgent task of finding a way to engage with the Visegrad Group that goes beyond the superficial affinities regarding closed immigration policy and nationalist sovereignty.

Most importantly, the United States must respect the commitment of the region to the European project, instead of encouraging fringe eurosceptic voices. Slovakia, which Pompeo is also visiting this week, is a eurozone member and has largely bucked the slide into nationalist politics in the region but only narrowly so. Its electorate and the governing coalition are divided between those who see both NATO and the European Union as fundamental to Slovakian security and prosperity, and those who instead look to the likes of Russia and China as viable civilizational alternatives.

This divide accounts for the odd mismatch between domestic rhetoric and government behavior on the international stage. At home, the leader of the governing Direction Social Democracy Party, Robert Fico, has rarely missed an opportunity to bash George Soros, Brussels, and Washington. In a recent video, he accused the United States of seeking regime change in Venezuela in order to seize oil reserves there, adding that “no lasting solutions ever came from the cockpits” of United States fighter planes.

The atlanticist president of Slovakia, Andrej Kiska, and its foreign minister, Miroslav Lajcak, who just returned from a stint in New York as president of the United Nations General Assembly, are doing their utmost to make sure their country toes the line, at least on the big issues. As of late, however, they have had the short end of the stick. Under pressure from hardline politicians, Lajcak had to backtrack from his proposal to recognize Juan Guaido as the leader of Venezuela. Slovakian diplomats have also failed in efforts to restrain Andrej Danko, the speaker of parliament and leader of a junior coalition party of nationalists who seeks closer ties with Moscow.

Against this background, Pompeo must tread carefully. He must avoid the eurosceptic tone that characterized his speech in Brussels last year, when he questioned whether the European Union is “ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats.” Such criticisms may be fair, but few Europeans want to be lectured about this topic by Americans, much like most Americans would not be thrilled to listen to foreigners remind them about the flaws of their own system of government. If denizens of Central Europe are forced into an artificial and unnecessary choice between the European Union and building closer ties with the United States, it is a safe bet that most would decide oh Brussels.

More seriously, any European Union bashing coming from the top United States diplomat gives credence to the voices across the region who reject both the vital European project and the critical transatlantic alliance. If Pompeo wants to strengthen the friendships that bind Central Europe and the United States together instead of driving the region further toward Russia, he would be well advised to leave his old talking points at home.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow focused on European politics at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter @DaliborRohac.