The Cable

The Romanian President Is in D.C. to Talk Defense, But…

Is he the man to deliver this message?

iohannis

Washington is giddy with anticipation ahead of ousted FBI Director James Comey’s testimony Thursday before the U.S. Senate — especially after dropping his juicy opening remarks — but at least one person had his mind on other things on Wednesday: Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, in town to meet President Donald Trump on Friday.

A White House meeting is always a big deal, especially for leaders from smaller countries. But Iohannis has a clear message about defense and closer ties.

“Security and defense represent a key component of the U.S.-Romanian strategic partnership,” Iohannis said at a Wednesday event at the Heritage Foundation. “As a dependable ally, Romania is doing its share. This year, we have fulfilled our objective,” spending 2 percent of GDP on defense — the first, Iohannis said, to do so, noting it was at the top of his presidential agenda.

The visit of the Romanian president in Washington is here to underline the importance of our defense and military ties and reinforce our cooperation also in terms of trade,” Victor Negrescu, a Romanian member of European Parliament told Foreign Policy. Negrescu pointed to increased Romanian defense spending, support for the installment of an anti-ballistic missile system, and the establishment of a “pro-U.S. caucus” in Romanian parliament.

But that parliamentary caucus, which gives Washington a friendly voice among Romanian lawmakers, came not at the behest of Iohannis, but Liviu Dragnea — considered by some to be the real power behind the throne. The president of the Romanian parliament’s chamber of deputies, Dragnea — and not Iohannis — calls the shots.

He’s the leader of Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party (of which Iohannis is not a member), but is not prime minister, which is a bit odd in a parliamentary system. But that’s because Iohannis said he would not approve a government with Dragnea at the helm, because Dragnea was convicted for his role in rigging a 2012 referendum.

Dragnea met with Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, shortly before Trump was sworn in as president (and a few weeks before Flynn was fired in disgrace.) Dragnea is also thought to be a force behind the proposed legislation that would let politicians charged with corruption — as Dragnea himself is — off the proverbial hook; that legislation was withdrawn after thousands took to the streets of Bucharest.

Iohannis came out against that legislation when it was proposed, saying, “Today is a day of mourning for rule of law.” But a strong stance against corruption is unlikely to endear him to Trump, who seems to have minimal interest in discussing human rights with foreign leaders and who has himself come under controversy for mixing politics and business. (He has already used several different Trump resort properties to hold official retreats, often with foreign leaders.)

Iohannis shouldn’t have too much difficulty talking about Romania’s commitment to the United States, especially as security concerns around the Black Sea push NATO members to ramp up their defense efforts. But whether he can make that commitment reciprocal will be seen on Friday — and beyond.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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