When European Countries Retreat From Democracy, How Should the U.S. Respond?

The question looms large during Pompeo’s visit to Central Europe.

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stand at a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, 2017.  (Danny Gys/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stand at a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, 2017. (Danny Gys/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Central Europe this week highlights a long-standing dilemma the United States faces with countries accused of democratic backsliding, including Hungary and Poland.

Actively engaging with these countries, as the Trump administration has chosen to do, could potentially enable their retreat from democracy. But refraining from engagement leaves a vacuum that Russia and China appear eager to fill.

Pompeo addressed the issue head on during a visit Monday to Hungary, where he met with Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto at the start of a five-country tour of Europe.

“Too often in the recent past, the United States was absent from Central Europe,” Pompeo said during his Monday visit. “That’s unacceptable. Our rivals filled those vacuums.”

The approach contrasts with the one taken by the Obama administration, which restricted its interactions with Hungary and publicly admonished Orban for curbing political rights and dismantling parts of the country’s democratic institutions.

Champions of the engagement policy include outgoing Europe envoy Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who will leave his post this month.

During his visit to Budapest, Pompeo pointed to strides in the U.S.-Hungary relationship, including a new defense cooperation agreement and discussions on arms deals.

Daniel Fried, a retired career diplomat and former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, said the United States “tended to fall back to a scolding, finger-wagging mode” in the past. “It didn’t do much good.” Fried cited Poland, where he said concerns about democratic backsliding had abated somewhat in the past 18 months, thanks in part to Washington’s engagement.

Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, pointed to the fact that Budapest joined its Western allies in expelling Russian diplomats following the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom and backing EU sanctions regimes against Moscow—despite being viewed as increasingly close to Moscow.

Pompeo touted increased U.S. engagement in the region as a way to push back on Russian influence. “We’ve now had 14 senior-level U.S. visits throughout Central Europe in just the first two years of this administration. I won’t tell you how many there were in the previous administration, but it starts with a ‘Z,’” he said. (Though the last secretary of state visit was, in fact, in 2011.)

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Hungary twice last year, while the last visit by a U.S. president to Budapest was in 2006.

But others say the Trump administration has little to show for engaging with Orban over the past two years.

“That engagement appears to have led nowhere. … It looks like enabling policy,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a Europe scholar at the Brookings Institution. “They already are deeply engaged with both Russia and China, and it’s not apparent to me that what this administration calls its engagement policy has changed that.”

The right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland are embroiled in political fights and disciplinary proceedings with the European Union, as their governments are accused of rolling back democratic institutions and cracking down on free media. The Hungarian government has touted Pompeo’s visit as proof of its pro-Western credentials—and a rebuff to its critics.

The organization Freedom House, which scores countries worldwide on political freedom and civil liberties, for the first time downgraded Hungary to “partly free” in its 2019 report, citing the Orban government’s “sustained attacks” on democratic institutions and restrictions on opposition parties, academia, the judicial system, and the media. It is the first EU member to receive such a downgrade.

In some cases, when the United States has pressed Budapest on an issue, “the Hungarian government has done the exact opposite repeatedly,” said Heather Conley, an expert on the region and a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

She cited several examples: the Hungarian government’s decision to close Central European University—a private university funded by the billionaire George Soros—in the face of U.S. pressure to keep it open; Budapest’s ongoing feud with Ukraine over the treatment of its Hungarian-speaking minorities, which has blocked up some NATO-Ukraine cooperation; and Hungary’s decision last year to refuse a U.S. request to extradite Russian arms dealers, sending them to Moscow instead.

Mitchell, the senior U.S. diplomat on Europe, expressed frustration over Budapest not working with the United States, according to a Hungarian diplomatic cable leaked to the Hungarian news site “Support is starting to dissipate for those who believe in U.S.-Hungarian relations, we have to show results,” he told a senior Hungarian diplomat during a meeting in December 2018, according to the leaked cable.

Meanwhile, Chinese state-backed companies have made inroads in Central Europe, alarming U.S. officials who fear the business ventures could be exploited by Chinese intelligence agencies and used as geopolitical leverage by Beijing.

Senior officials point to Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, currently embroiled in a criminal indictment in the United States over bank fraud and sanctions violations. Last month, Poland arrested a Huawei employee on suspicion of espionage, and the Czech Republic’s cybersecurity agency has pushed the government not to use equipment or software from Huawei or ZTE, another Chinese technology company.

Pompeo said he raised “the dangers of allowing China to gain a bridgehead in Hungary” with his Hungarian counterpart during their joint press conference.

His European tour—which includes a stop in Brussels and an expected meeting with the EU’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini—also highlights growing fissures in the trans-Atlantic relationship. While the Trump administration has ramped up military support for NATO (even amid the president’s own tirades against the alliance), it has spurned engagement with the European Union following spats over the Iran nuclear deal and trade issues.

In July 2018, Trump called the European Union a “foe,” putting it on par with Russia and China. Later in the year, the Trump administration downgraded the diplomatic status of the EU mission in Washington without bothering to tell the EU.

Brussels is still reeling from a speech Pompeo gave during a visit in December, in which he berated Trump’s EU critics and panned multilateralism.

The speech had a “serious impact” in Brussels, said Stelzenmüller, the Brookings scholar. “That’s one of the worst European speeches a secretary of state has ever given. The reverberations are still being felt.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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