The US has not given up on Central Europe

The eagerly-anticipated visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Central Europe last week came amidst much hope for renewed US engagement in the region. There had not been a state department visit to Hungary for eight years, and Mr Pompeo’s visit was the first state secretarial visit to Slovakia for 20 years.

Mr Pompeo’s talks with the ministers and heads of government of Hungary, Slovakia and Poland show that the United States is still deeply committed to its relations with Central Europe, but this commitment takes a very different approach to that of the previous administration. The battle for influence over Central Europe has taken a new turn, with Washington now taking aim at Russia and China.

Security first

For the last 30 years, the relationship between Central Europe and the United States has always stood on three pillars: economic relations, security cooperation and political dialogue. Tensions between some countries in the region (primarily Poland and Hungary) emerged during the Obama administration and US diplomats at that time were more critical towards the two governments. Since Donald Trump was elected president, US foreign policy changed course and became more flexible about cooperating with Central Europe’s authoritarians.

Mr Pompeo’s visit focused on strengthening the American security commitment to local NATO allies. Regardless of the US president’s contradictory stance on Russia, the tour proves that Washington is still heavily concerned about defence cooperation with Central Europe: Slovakia and Hungary will purchase American military equipment and the US has managed to renew its defence cooperation agreement (DCA) with Hungary. Given that Hungary is widely considered a Russian proxy, the renewal of the DCA is an important step towards keeping Hungary in check.

US-Polish security cooperation is stronger then ever. Having co-hosted a summit themed around Middle Eastern issues, the government in Warsaw played an important part in promoting the US foreign policy agenda. While claiming to act as a go-between for the EU, Poland nevertheless broke with other major European states who support the international nuclear agreement with Iran.

Unsurprisingly, the US has continued to back Poland in criticising Nord Stream 2, a Russian pipeline that will directly transfer gas to Europe, bypassing Ukraine.

As for Slovakia, relations with the US can be described with the same level of satisfaction. Apart from broadening bilateral security cooperation, the political dialogue between the two countries seems to be intensified and uninterrupted.

When it comes to Hungary, however, the country’s commitment to NATO stands on contradictory ground. There are three main reasons why. Firstly, while Hungary did agree with the US on renewing the DCA, the Hungarian government had been wary of approving the free movement of American troops in Hungary. Secondly, the missile system Hungary is about to acquire from the US is not the kind of military equipment that would catch the Russian government’s attention. Hungary is to all intents and purposes merely making a gesture by purchasing equipment from the US that is irrelevant to Russia. Thirdly, the Hungarian government officially supports Western calls for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but fails to meaningfully criticise Russia for the annexation of Crimea and its support for the rebels in the east of the country.

During his press conference with Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó, Mr Pompeo made a clear effort to distance Hungary from Russia. However, this was in vain. In an interview with the pro-government weekly Figyelő two days after the talks with Mr Pompeo, the Hungarian PM said that Budapest cannot base its security exclusively on NATO. Moreover, it has to be able to defend the country ’from any direction’. On the surface, Hungary continues to cooperate with the US, but it remains fully open to Russian interference.

The latest sign of Mr Orbán’s hypocrisy came a week after the secretary of state’s visit: the Hungarian government has provided the Russian International Investment Bank, that will move its headquarters to Budapest, with full diplomatic immunity despite having no diplomats at all.

From the American viewpoint, the energy dimension seems to be a bit more promising. Hungary has expressed its willingness to cut dependence on Russian gas. Diversifying energy resources is of interest to all Central and Eastern European states and US-backed initiatives in Croatia, Romania and within the Three Seas Initiative are a good start.

Democracy put on hold – for now

So far, the US government has been much less critical of democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary than it was during Barack Obama’s presidency. The US remained silent even when Hungary’s nationalist government pushed the Central European University, an institution funded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, out of the country – and clearly violated American interests. This time, however, Mr Pompeo did emphasise the importance of core Transatlantic values such as freedom and democracy – even if he did it in a moderate way.

The state department’s press releases regarding the visit to Budapest and Warsaw show a mild, but – diplomatically speaking – significant warning against the two governments’ democratic backsliding. The US government also promised to fight corruption, support independent media and investigative journalism in all four Visegrád countries. Moreover, before meeting Hungarian government officials, Mr Pompeo met with the heads of major Hungarian non-governmental organisations (which are labelled as ’Soros agents’ by Mr Orbán).

This was the first time that the Trump administration has openly expressed meaningful criticism towards the two countries. Being pressed to do so by the US Congress, this mild approach is expected to continue, but the focus will be on energy and security.

As long as the Trump administration stays in office, both the Hungarian and Polish governments can feel safe. For them, the visit is seen as a green light for their anti-democratic practices and a sign of an alliance with a similarly conservative US president – regardless of mild warnings by the State Department.

“Too often in the recent past, the United States was absent from Central Europe. That’s unacceptable,” said Mr Pompeo during his press conference in Budapest. His visit proves that the US has not given up on Central Europe. All he has to prove now that they have not given up on Central European democracy.