Mike Pompeo must strengthen diplomacy with Central Europe

Normally, a visit by the United States Secretary of State to capitals of America’s Central European allies would be mostly a sequence of courtesy calls. But these are not normal times. What is at stake during the visit of Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Graham clashed with Pentagon chief over Syria | Talk grows that Trump will fire Coats | Coast Guard officer accused of domestic terrorism plot Sean Spicer joins 'Extra' as 'special DC correspondent' Trump, Pompeo: Alabama woman who joined ISIS cannot return to US MORE to Budapest, Bratislava, and Warsaw this week is the place of the region in the Western alliance.

The first stop on his trip, Hungary, is largely a lost cause. Although Viktor Orbán is attuned to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE’s brand of politics, his government has also been an extremely unreliable ally. In recent months alone, Hungary has acted against U.S. interests at a variety of junctures. It has expelled the New York-incorporated Central European University from Budapest in spite of U.S. protests, sent the Lyubishins, Russian arms dealers, back to Russia instead of extraditing them to the United States, sabotaged Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the EU, and openly flirted with the idea of “neutrality,” presumably as an alternative to Hungary membership in NATO and the EU.

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Across Central Europe, the seemingly Trumpist currents of local politics go hand in hand with a distrust of America and an embrace of authoritarianism and Russia. Poland, a staunch U.S. ally, may seem like an exception but even there, the U.S. Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher, a Trump’s appointee, has been visibly exasperated by the government’s attacks on independent media. Moreover, Poland’s nationalist, Trump-friendly government may not survive the parliamentary elections this fall. The U.S. administration thus faces the urgent task of finding a way of engaging with Visegrad countries in a way that goes beyond the superficial affinities over immigration and national sovereignty.

Most importantly, the United States has to respect the region’s commitment to the European project, instead of encouraging its fringe euroskeptic voices. Slovakia, which Pompeo is visiting on Tuesday, is a Eurozone member and has largely bucked the region’s slide into nationalist politics, but only narrowly so. Its electorate and the governing coalition are divided between those who see both the EU and NATO as fundamental to Slovakia’s security and prosperity, and those who instead look up to Russia and China as viable civilizational alternatives.

This divide accounts for the odd mismatch between domestic rhetoric and the government’s behavior on the international stage. At home, the leader of the governing “Smer” party, Robert Fico, rarely misses an opportunity to bash George Soros, Brussels, and Washington. In a recent Facebook video, he accused the United States of seeking regime change in Venezuela in order to seize the country’s oil reserves, adding that “no lasting solutions [to international problems] ever came from the cockpits of U.S. fighter planes.”

The country’s Atlanticist president, Andrej Kiska, and its foreign minister, Miroslav Lajčák, who just returned from a stint in New York City as President of the United Nations General Assembly, are doing their utmost to make sure that Slovakia 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 members of “Smer,” Lajčák had to backtrack last week from his proposal to recognize Juan Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Slovakia’s diplomats have also failed in their efforts to restrain Andrej Danko, the speaker of parliament and leader of a junior coalition party of Slovak nationalists, who is seeking to foster closer ties with Moscow.

Against this background, Pompeo must tread carefully. In particular, he must avoid the euroskeptic tone that characterized his speech in Brussels in December, where he questioned whether “the EU [is] ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats […] in Brussels.” Such criticisms might be fair, but few Europeans want to be lectured about the EU by Americans – much like most Americans would not be thrilled to hear foreigners remind them about the flaws of their own system of government. And if denizens of Central Europe are forced into an artificial and unnecessary choice between the EU and building closer ties with the United States, it is a safe bet that most would go with Brussels.

More seriously, any EU bashing coming from the head of U.S. diplomacy gives credence to the voices across the region who reject both the European project and the transatlantic alliance. If Pompeo wants to strengthen the friendships that bind Central Europe and the United States, instead of driving the region further into Russia’s embrace, he would be well advised to leave his Trumpist talking points at home.

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