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Relations between Europe and the United States will never be the same after the tempestuous presidency of Donald Trump. But if President-elect Joe Biden has an opportunity to repair the damage, it lies in central and eastern Europe.
U.S. leverage in this region has historically been strong, and Washington’s influence and example are still much needed here. Recent crises have left openings for the United States to renew its diplomatic engagement: the Great COVID-19 Shutdown, a revolution in Belarus, an anticorruption uprising in Bulgaria, wars in Armenia and Ukraine, rising authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland, and a violent protest over a botched election in Georgia are but a few of the recent events that have tested pan-European solidarity and found it wanting. The United States can still be of help to fill that gap.
Consider the crisis in Belarus, whose dictatorship has been terrorizing peaceful protesters. The European Union took months to put together a mostly symbolic sanctions package—one that is unlikely to deter the Belarusian regime from continuing to slaughter its citizens. In Nagorno-Karabakh, authoritarian Azerbaijan attacked democratic Armenia, and Europe refused to come to Armenia’s aid. Yerevan was forced to capitulate and allow Russian “peacekeeping” troops—in reality, occupying forces—to roll over the contested land.
Europe might be trusted to act with greater coherence if the United States were still engaged and playing a constructive role on the continent. Now more than ever, central and eastern Europeans need the United States to exercise the outsize influence it wields in our region. After all, folks in my part of Europe still name their streets after American politicians (and don’t get me started on my people’s obsession with American elections). But for renewed American diplomacy to begin to mend U.S. relations with Europe, Washington will need a foreign policy less focused on great-power rivalries and more focused on democratic values.
The incoming Biden administration will need years to erase the damage the Trump administration has done. Not only did Trump neglect long-standing alliances, blackmail close partners, and cozy up to dictators but he mocked the fundamental values that undergird democracy. U.S. diplomats under Trump stopped engaging with many countries on queer issues, and Washington even canceled grants to Hungarian and Polish democracy-development organizations under pressure from illiberal local leaders.
The next administration will need to do better, and one place it can begin is by seeking to project American diversity rather than American power. The American struggle for justice still captures imaginations in Europe: last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in the United States empowered activism across the continent—for civil rights equality and against racism and police overreach. As an example to the world, the incoming Biden administration should ensure the U.S. diplomatic corps looks as diverse as the rest of the United States and that it seeks to promote indigenous, queer, transgender, women’s, and human rights—not just as one of many competing priorities but as a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy.
The American struggle for justice still captures imaginations in Europe.
Under Biden, Washington should dispense with obsolete talk of superpowers and great-power rivalries. Enough with calls and trips to Moscow as the first reaction to any eastern European crisis. The region is not a mere arena for competition among China, Russia, the United States, and western Europe. Framing it as such reinforces the Kremlin’s narrative, in which the countries on Russia’s periphery are pawns in a geopolitical game. The best way for the United States to counter Russian colonialism in the region is to support the self-determination of former Russian colonies as they consolidate their democracies and strengthen the rule of law.
A new narrative will necessitate new partners on the ground. Central and eastern Europe are different places than they were in 2016. Four years ago, Ukrainian civil society pressed a daring reform agenda to root out corruption and promote efficient governance. Now it watches as that agenda is rolled back amid public indifference, in part because activists failed to rally ordinary Ukrainians to their cause. The meteoric rise of the populist movement behind President Volodymyr Zelensky caught both Ukraine’s activists and their democratic allies off-guard. Foreign governments had relied on “insights” from the “Kyiv bubble” of foreign-funded development initiatives. They continue to rely on that bubble, even though its insights look increasingly one-dimensional, bitter, and out of touch. But there are new grassroots civil society initiatives emerging all around Ukraine (and in other parts of eastern Europe, too) that U.S. diplomats should listen to and seek to amplify during the next administration.
Next door to Ukraine, Hungary and Poland have seen their democracies damaged by autocratic-leaning governments in recent years. The leaders of these countries fervently supported Trump. As a result, theirs are the only countries in Europe where the United States managed to expand its influence over the last four years. Biden’s administration should use that influence, not squander it. Both countries are in bitter standoffs with Brussels for violating EU membership rules. Washington should play good cop to Brussels’s bad cop and nudge Budapest and Warsaw toward reconciliation with the EU.
Setting a new direction for U.S. relations with central and eastern Europe will require not only the White House but also Congress to take more of an interest in the region. I have spent years encouraging members of parliament, both in individual European countries and in Brussels, to intervene personally to uphold norms of international law across central and eastern Europe—whether to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly or call attention to human rights violations. The efforts of parliamentarians have saved lives and set important precedents. A similar commitment from members of the U.S. Congress on both sides of the aisle could go a long way toward making a renewed transatlantic partnership sustainable.
As I write this, I have one eye on a livestream of protests in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. People there are rallying against flawed parliamentary elections, and in the crowd are many EU flags—symbolizing the protesters’ aspirations for justice, the rule of law, and equality in a country that is strongly committed to the European Union integration. Yet I also spot an American flag. Years ago, people in my part of the world mostly stopped bringing those to pro-democratic rallies as symbols of freedom and self-governance. Yet here, in the wake of Biden’s victory, is a small sign that this might be about to change.
The sight reminds me of a passage from Biden’s victory speech, in which the president-elect promised that during his administration the United States would “lead not by the example of our power, but the power of our example.” A United States that is diverse and compassionate—one that strives toward justice, aware of its faults but still determined to learn and grow—is a country worth emulating. Inspiration can become the United States’ most powerful diplomatic strategy. In eastern and central Europe, it can still go a long way toward healing the transatlantic rift.