With President Biden gaining control, among other things, of U.S. foreign policy, the European allies and other partners are once again at the receiving end of American exhortations if not outright pressures. The same Europeans who feared the worst for America when Donald Trump was close to a repeat election and a mob of assorted militias assaulted the citadel of American democracy were reminded by the new American president that democracy is on a trajectory of decline, in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Biden is right when he tells the Europeans that they have to take action on those European Union members that are acting against the Union’s values and principles, destroying the free press, the independence of the judiciary and human rights, just as is happening in the worst case, that of Poland, where the right-wing government has imposed a stringent ban on abortion.
Biden is offering a deal to the Europeans. The U.S. will work closely with the European partners, will support NATO allies, will halt the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany and will lift a cap on those forces. The former president had pursued the disruptive path of cutting down the U.S. presence in Germany while disparaging NATO, calling it “obsolete”. The European part of the deal will accept a common strategy vis à vis Russia, opposing the Kremlin’s attacks on Western democracies. In a radical departure from his predecessor, Biden denounced the recklessness of Putin’s Russia and its hacking into computer networks in the United States and in Europe. The need to protect the collective security is a welcome concept after the wishy-washy behavior of former president Trump with Russia and his bromance with President Putin to the point that the content of their conversations never became public.
The paradox that President Biden is contending with is that the autocratic governments of Central Europe – the so called Visegrad Four: Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland – are those that get the most out of NATO in addition to the generous financial assistance from the European Union. In other words, they had the cake and ate it too. The Trump administration played into their hand and supported their participation in the Three Seas Initiative, an agreement for energy infrastructure cooperation between 12 European states, including the Visegrad Four. The Czechs were the major beneficiaries of the American largesse whose approach was approved by Congress. Poland and Hungary were slated to receive a large quantity of American military equipment and the expectation is that Biden will honor Trump’s commitment. Where that commitment should come into play with pressure from Washington is in forcing the four illiberal “democracies” of Central Europe to stop suffocating the liberal trends embraced by the mayors of the four capitals.
Whatever happens to the opposition to those populist national governments, it is now apparent that President Biden will address important issues of democracy and human rights that the Trump administration had thoroughly disregarded. In addition, the Europeans will have to do their part in forcing political pluralism to be reestablished in the four wayward states. The attempt of the European Union to link the distribution of funds to those countries to the adherence to the rule of law is a first step. Unfortunately, the EU is unable or politically unwilling to use pressure to stop the fading of democratic values. This is where President Biden comes in. He can give some teeth to his warning about the perils that autocratic leaders such as Putin, the Hungarian Orban and the Polish Kaczynski pose to the future of democratic governance not only in Europe but worldwide. It is high time for that.