Why the US should meddle in Europe to stop autocratizing NATO allies

Why the US should meddle in Europe to stop autocratizing NATO allies
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While the Biden administration has elevated the fight against authoritarian trends and corruption to a foreign policy priority, the U.S. now faces a tough challenge to its democracy agenda: the authoritarian developments among its European NATO allies, particularly Hungary and Poland. Both countries experienced the sharpest decline in democratic quality in the Western world since the recent incumbents, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, came to power in 2010 and 2015, respectively. 

The fact that neither of the world’s two leading democracy-measuring institutions — Freedom House and V-Dem — considers Hungary to be any sort of democracy anymore should raise alarm about the true authoritarian nature of illiberal projects among U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe. If Washington turns a blind eye to the authoritarian developments in its own self-described, value-based alliance system, the U.S. risks running into the accusation of double standards, which may significantly weaken its democracy agenda.

However, the autocratization of Hungary and Poland poses more challenges for the U.S. than just its credibility when it comes to democracy and rule of law. 

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Besides Turkey, Hungary is the only NATO member state that fails to comply, not only with democratic values that the current administration promotes, but also with the foreign policy priorities and interests of the U.S. regarding China and Russia. In stark contrast to Budapest, Poland’s commitment to NATO has been unshakeable because of the existential security threat stemming from Russia. Warsaw also has been ready in the past to comply with Washington’s main expectations regarding China, in order to keep the U.S. engaged as a security provider on NATO’s Eastern Flank.

However, since the Biden administration took office, Poland appears to be distancing itself from Washington’s China policy by seeking a more intense and balanced relationship with Beijing and labeling U.S.-China strategic competition as a “bilateral issue.”

Warsaw may believe it has the upper hand in U.S.-Poland bilateral relations if it rests on the assumption that the U.S. won’t reduce its security engagement on the Eastern Flank without undermining its own strategic approach to NATO. According to the Polish perception, the Biden administration cannot credibly threaten Poland with weakening security cooperation if the PiS government further proceeds with its authoritarian agenda.

How can Washington then address the autocratization of its Central European NATO allies, Hungary and Poland, and their rapprochement with Beijing? While U.S. influence over Hungary might be limited, Washington still does have significant leverage over Poland because of Warsaw’s substantial interest in security cooperation. 

Washington should be ready to play out the security card to put pressure on Warsaw. First, it should calibrate its diplomatic and policy moves in a way that drives a wedge between Poland and Hungary. This could allow European Union institutions to address authoritarian developments in both countries, but primarily in Hungary, more effectively.

How can such a strategy be realized?

U.S. diplomacy should clearly communicate with Poland that Warsaw’s strategic alliance with Budapest poses a heavy burden on any further deepening of the security cooperation.Washington also should use the security cooperation card on the Polish domestic stage to weaken the vanguards of authoritarian politics in the Polish government coalition and strengthen moderate forces. It should communicate the message on all available channels that the policies of Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro pose severe obstacles to deeper transatlantic relations, while Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin should be backed in parallel.

Furthermore, as a strong contrast to former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE’s approach to the European Union, President BidenJoe BidenJan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Democrats address reports that clean energy program will be axed Two House Democrats to retire ahead of challenging midterms MORE should recognize — and use — EU institutions as potential vehicles for amplifying U.S. interests.

In this spirit, the U.S. should elevate the question of autocratizing EU member states to the highest levels of the transatlantic dialogue and create a discourse of reciprocity with regard to the democracy homework that both the U.S. and the EU have to do on the home front. 

The U.S. recently started working on strengthening democracy at home after Trump’s four-year onslaught on democratic institutions, but the EU largely has failed to do so for a decade. Since the European Union expressed its high expectations for a renewal and reinforcement of U.S. democracy, Washington should not shy away from communicating the same message to EU institutions and key European governments, including Germany. 

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Germany lately has evolved into a key autocracy-enabler within the EU, so Berlin’s policy toward Budapest and Warsaw also should be put on the U.S.-German bilateral relations agenda.To provide the appropriate impetus for U.S.-EU dialogue on authoritarian developments in Europe, and to push EU institutions toward a more activist approach, Washington could consider moves that may ridicule EU passivity, especially towards Hungary.

In similar fashion, as it happened recently with former Slovak general prosecutor Dobroslav Trnka, the Biden administration should trigger sanction mechanisms against key stakeholders of political corruption in Hungary — potentially including general prosecutor Péter Polt; the regime’s top oligarch, Lőrinc Mészáros; or Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz. That would put pressure on the EU to act and could help to push forward the application of the EU’s rule of law conditionality regulation, which is actually suspended.

With an eye on the upcoming 2022 elections in Hungary, the U.S. should emphasize the question of electoral integrity both in its dialogue with the EU and within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and should act proactively to put in place a robust international electoral monitoring mission under an OSCE flag. On a bilateral level, the U.S. should renew its commitment to supporting democracy in central and eastern Europe, making financial resources available for the support of critical civil society and free media, and calibrating priorities in a way that will allow for grants to have real impact on the ground.

If Washington would like to preserve the credibility of its democracy agenda, it must address the autocratization of its Central European allies in a convincing way. However, it can only succeed if the Biden administration is ready to meddle in European politics in unprecedented ways.

Daniel Hegedus is nonresident fellow for Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund. He previously worked at Freedom House, the German Council on Foreign Relations and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and has taught at the Institute for Eastern-European Studies at the Free University in Berlin, Humboldt University in Berlin and the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHegedus82.