On the 24th of March, the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID) in partnership with the Equilibrium Institute and the Atlantic Council of the United States organised a discussion in the framework of CEID’s Euro-Atlantic Café series, supported by the US Embassy in Hungary. The event focused on the geopolitical priorities of the Biden Administration in Central Europe.
Ambassador Colleen Bell, Member of the Board at the Atlantic Council of the United States and former Ambassador to Hungary greeted the guests and panellists and invited them to discuss President Biden’s priorities and vision for the transatlantic relationship, specifically for Central Europe. She reaffirmed the importance of transatlantic cooperation, as states face an unprecedented health crisis, intensifying geopolitical challenges and economic recession.
Our guests, Denise Forsthuber, (Associate Director, Future Europe Initiative, Atlantic Council of the United States), Max Bergmann (Senior Fellow, Centre for American Progress) and Benjamin Haddad, (Director, Europe Centre, Atlantic Council of the United States) discussed and shared their views on the future of transatlantic relations and Biden’s geopolitical priorities in Central-Eastern Europe (CEE).
Tamás Boros (Director of the Equilibrium Institute) introduced the topic by explaining the importance of the CEE region in US politics, emphasizing the extreme exposure of the region to any changes in US foreign policy. In recent years, the region was severely influenced by China and Russia, manifested in Hungary’s dependence on Russian energy supplies, for example, the Russian nuclear power station Paks and Paks 2, and PM Viktor Orbán’s approval of Huawei in Hungary and his commitment and support for the Belt and Road Initiative. It is a fact that the Central-Eastern region is where great power interests clash and the regions geopolitical importance is not negligible. In the upcoming years the Biden administration will bring vital changes to the region from a foreign and security policy perspective and the key question remains – how will this complicated relationship between the US and the CEE transform under the Biden administration?
“America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backwards: we are looking forwards together” – Dániel Bartha, the discussion’s moderator quoted Biden’s speech at the virtual Munich Security Conference. Mr Benjamin Haddad thinks that it is definitely a win for Europe to see an internationalist president in the US as the Biden administration and its policy opens an incredible window of opportunity to reshape and restart transatlantic relations with a more responsible Europe at its core. President Biden comes with a lot of experience and knowledge of Central Europe and he has proven he is suitable as president through good decisions thus far. As soon as he was inaugurated, Biden re-joined the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization and strengthened US commitment to NATO. However – Mr Haddad said – there are definitely going to be clear expectations from the United States towards the European Union. President Trump put a strong emphasis on defence spending and burden sharing during his presidency which he did in a very confrontational and hostile way, that was counterproductive. However, instigating Europe to ensure its own security and invest more in the military will continuously play a significant part in US foreign policy under President Biden. There will be a conversation about the question of strategic autonomy and European sovereignty, where Central European states will play a key role in maintaining stability and security as the region has key military actors and a lot of hard power. This question is especially important keeping a hostile Russia in mind which still poses a threat to European sovereignty. Thinking about the Crimean Invasion in 2014 the Central European countries are fundamental in shaping Brussels’ vision about Russia.
Mr Bergmann emphasized that President Biden “pushed the reset button” with the EU, but not with China or Russia. Biden tackled the issue of China in a very assertive manner, hence the intensifying competition is likely to persist. President Biden sees competition with China as a defining principle, meaning that it will remain a priority on the US foreign policy agenda. The transatlantic relations will however be revitalized, as the EU is not only a partner and ally of the US but also a key geopolitical battleground. The tactics regarding China and Russia are clear – Mr. Bergmann explained – they are nervous about a united European Union effectively wielding its power. The EU is a very powerful geopolitical player in international politics and China is anxious that good transatlantic relations could downgrade their own power in the region so China has a clear intention to divide Europe. For the US it is evident that Hungary and other states in the Central-Eastern region are potential allies and assets to China and currently, they are being used as a blocking mechanism. President Biden is very likely to want to change this in the upcoming years. China will be the main foreign policy priority on the US agenda, but Russia will be addressed as well, by putting pressure on Central Eastern countries, especially on Poland.
Ms Denise Forsthuber emphasised the importance of the Covid crisis management – an issue that definitely needs close cooperation between the allies – as the Biden administration`s most important policy agenda in the Central Eastern region besides the geopolitical competition. Ms Forsthuber also reaffirmed the significance of the challenge posed by the US-China competition. She outlined that democracy and the rule of law will also be a very important issue, as President Biden is very committed to spreading and strengthening democratic values worldwide, revitalizing alliances, tackling corruption and fighting climate change. President Biden will want to “lead by example” in the upcoming years.
About US military presence in Europe during Biden’s presidency, Mr Haddad sees a trend of military disengagement since the 1990s, the end of the Cold War. Last year Trump announced a unilateral withdrawal of 10000 troops from Germany, which was a move heavily criticised by the European allies. He believes that the US will continue to decrease its military presence on the European continent. In the future, from a US perspective, Europe will have to become more independent militarily in the upcoming years, but it is without question that the US remains a close ally of the European Union.
Biden has a very strong position on the issue of energy, and Russian expansion in the Western regions of Europe – Mr Bergmann said – as the US President was calling for sanctions against companies participating in Nordstream 2 developments in Germany. The US is in favour of trying to diversify Europe’s energy needs to present an alternative to Russia. Mr Bergmann argued that Biden will address this question from a climate perspective while using its diplomatic leverage on countries like Poland to push them away from Russian energy. As Biden is overly committed to the fight against climate change, he will most likely use the issue of climate as a reason for Germany to not go through with Nordstream 2.
The upcoming 4 years are about to transform international politics. President Biden is committed and enthusiastic to resetting transatlantic relations. During his first years of presidency, the main focus will be on post-pandemic recovery, Chinese competition, Russian influence in the region, the climate emergency and obviously the strengthening of liberal, democratic values.