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President-elect Joe Biden has promised to host a major “Summit of Democracies” in his first year in office as part of his effort to fight global democratic erosion and reverse President Donald Trump’s tilt toward authoritarian strongmen. Biden has decried, as he said in a 2019 speech, “the rapid advance of authoritarianism, nationalism, and illiberal tendencies around the world—not just in Russia and China, but also among our allies, places like Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary.”
Biden’s recognition of the problem is right on the mark. Over the past decade and more, states that had been committed to democratic principles have backslid, while Russia and China have been working overtime to weaken such governments through means ranging from the Moscow-driven disinformation efforts to China’s Belt and Road initiative. As Biden takes office, there is a clear need for an imaginative and energetic policy to counter authoritarianism and defend democracy, one that treats democracy promotion as a genuinely vital national interest.
What is a less certain is whether Biden is going about this the right way. If the new administration wants to demonstrate its resolve on the issue of democracy, focusing on a serious, specific problem in the near-term—one that is festering in the midst of the democratic heartland of Europe—is a better way to go than a global confab that will deal with the issue at 30,000 feet through recommitments to values and standards.
Yes, a well-choreographed conference could provide a galvanizing event for the world’s democracies. But as political scientists James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson have pointed out, deciding who should be invited to such an event would be a staggering problem, and diplomatic fallout from snubbing countries that may be useful partners but don’t meet U.S. democratic standards would cause headaches from now till the next presidential election. Getting that right, if that’s possible, will take enormous preparation.
Before the U.S invests the months needed to tee up such an event, Biden can strike a powerful blow against the spread of authoritarianism with a simple step in his first weeks in office: He should deliver an unambiguous message to Europe’s foremost underminers of democratic norms—Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party and de facto Polish leader Jaroslaw Kacyznski of the Polish Law and Justice Party—that the United States fully supports the recent efforts of the majority of European Union states to penalize other members that do not uphold the rule of law. He can do that any way he wants—through a speech he or his secretary of state gives, a press availability with the leadership of the EU, or a readout from phone calls with those countries' leaders—though preferably not a tweet. And for good measure, Biden should make clear that the U.S. stands ready to back any further EU measures aimed at increasing the political pressure on Budapest and Warsaw for their weakening of democratic governance.
The EU effort was at the center of a meeting on December 10, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel forged a compromise that ended with Hungary and Poland dropping their opposition to a 1.8 trillion euro budget and coronavirus recovery package. In return, the Poles and Hungarians were assured that a new EU mechanism that allows suspension of funding to countries that do not meet rule-of-law standards would be reviewed by European courts. The mechanism, which was set to deprive Hungary and Poland of billions of euros—a massive 4.5 percent of GDP in Hungary’s case—will likely not go into effect for as long as two years.
That seems like a classic diplomatic fudge, and plenty of observers have attacked it as such. But the EU did not retreat from the principle, only delay implementation, and that is no small achievement given the impasse on urgently needed pandemic relief. The United States, having aided and abetted Hungary and Poland during the Trump years and having cast the EU as a “foe,” in Trump’s words, now needs to show its backing for the EU majority.
Doing so will not topple the governments in Budapest and Warsaw overnight, nor should anyone want that kind of disruption. But it will turn up the political heat on these regimes, underscoring that their position in the West is imperiled by their own policies. Leaders in both countries have been adept at securing political support from the Trump administration, which has had the effect of deflecting pressure from Brussels and creating a sense of acceptance and legitimacy. Poland, to give one example, managed to suck up to the American commander-in-chief with a proposal to create “Fort Trump.” Though Trump lapped it up, the Fort isn’t going to be built because the Poles wouldn’t meet U.S. demands for investment in the new facility. Still, Poland been a net beneficiary because the U.S. is slated to deploy thousands of US troops there at the same time others U.S. forces are being pulled out of Germany—no small benefit, economically or for security or for creating the appearance of U.S. approval of the government in Warsaw.
Authoritarians also need worry about public approval, and political isolation will not go down well with populaces of these two countries. The EU remains extremely popular among Hungarians and Poles—not least because the enormous amounts of money it provides—and favorable ratings of the U.S. in these countries exceeds those in most of Europe. Though Biden can start with a statement, the U.S. has more screws to turn when it wants, such as more criticism in various international fora and ultimately economic pressure of various kinds. At the same time, Orban and Kaczynski don’t have a lot of other options for capable partners in their neighborhood. Truly awful history makes Russia inconceivable as a true strategic partner for Poland and a tough one to imagine for Hungary.
An open, tough stand on Europe’s authoritarians would mark a significant departure from past U.S. diplomatic practice. During the Obama administration, Washington considered Hungary a semi-pariah, for the most part shunning contact with Orban, but essentially leaving the EU to deal with the Danubian strongman as a European problem. Domestic lobbies resolutely opposed harder measures, claiming that they would drive Hungary into Russia’s arms. (Poland’s right turn occurred with parliamentary elections in late 2015 and the worst of its anti-democratic “reforms” came during the Trump administration.)
But the idea that tolerance for Orban’s illiberalism at home would keep Hungary in the Western fold has now been tested and failed. Orban enjoys Europe’s coziest relations with Russia, even if those ties are far from an actual alliance, and he has shown himself to be an equal opportunity authoritarian. One fitting symbol: Hungary hosts Huawei’s largest supply center outside of China. Benign neglect clearly won’t do anymore.
Orban has packed his country’s courts and turned them into an instrument of Fidesz party rule; Hungary’s constitution has been rewritten to reflect his wishes. Orban’s friends now enjoy monopoly control of the nation’s media—a U.S. plan to support independent media in the country was shelved by Trump as a favor to Orban. The electoral system has been configured to ensure Fidesz rule, and economic cronyism has taken deep roots. As Freedom House, the Washington pro-democracy NGO wrote recently, “Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary has … dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions.” Orban’s success led Steve Bannon, the erstwhile adviser to the current U.S. president and a dog’s breakfast of European far-right parties, to call Orban “Trump before Trump.”
Orban’s ability to bend his country’s institutions to his will—and using them to advance a xenophobic populism—has elicited the envy of the Polish Law and Justice Party, which since coming into power in 2015 has also packed Poland’s courts and curtailed press freedoms while pursuing anti-gay and anti-immigrant polices.
Why should the U.S. focus its pro-democracy efforts on mid-sized countries such as Poland and Hungary and not, for example, on the multiple backsliders in the Western hemisphere or the world’s largest democracy, India, whose descent into authoritarianism appears both more dramatic and threatening to the rights of hundreds of millions of people?
One big reason is that Hungary and Poland have lit a dangerously attractive path for others in Europe. In recent years, political leaders in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Italy and elsewhere have all flirted with Orbanism and the Hungarian’s model of, what its leader proudly calls, “illiberal democracy.” For the U.S., sending a clear sign now will demonstrate to any would-be backsliders that the U.S. is more serious about democracy policy than it has been in the recent past, and that their choices will have real consequences. It could also help revive the spirits of pro-democracy activists in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere who have been wearied by their governments’ persistent curtailment of their rights.
Just as important, focusing on Europe will help Biden over the long-term in his effort to reinvigorate global democracy. That initiative will require creating critical mass in the international community. U.S. European partners, more than any other group of nations, have the moral heft of shared values and economic resources to strengthen global democracy. That is why, despite plenty of routine friction, all postwar presidents before Trump saw a democratic and unified Europe as being in America’s deepest interest. The transatlantic relationship is a core asset of America’s influence in the world: Unless the U.S. and EU can work together, Biden’s campaign faces long odds. So long as Hungary, Poland and weaken Europe from within, the necessary solidarity will be hard to achieve.
Biden knows that strengthening the transatlantic alliance is necessary for dealing with China, Russia, climate change and a raft of other issues. As a demonstration of his abhorrence for the egregious mistreatment the EU suffered at the hands of Trump administration, who recklessly undermined the EU with his practice of backing its renegades against old friends such as Germany and France, the act of backing the EU majority against Budapest and Warsaw could pay valuable dividends.
Some will undoubtedly sneer at the notion that the U.S. is in a position to criticize anyone on democratic practice when the trauma of the Trump years is fresh, and, in fact, a dozen Republican senators and as many as 140 members of Congress are intriguing to set aside the results of free and fair elections. The U.S. does have a lot of work to do at home. But waiting until America sorts out its own issues before dealing with an ominous set of circumstances abroad is not a luxury the country can afford. The U.S. needs a community of like-minded states to ensure its security and prosperity, and, where possible, should help others achieve freedoms like the ones Americans enjoy. Those principles served administrations of both parties well from Roosevelt through Obama.
Dealing with authoritarians who have entrenched themselves inside the West’s perimeter is a complicated challenge. Orban and Kaczynski have plenty of cards yet to play. But they have been thrown off balance by Trump’s defeat, and, to paraphrase George Canning, Britain’s early 19th century prime minister, this is the moment for the New World to help redress a glaring problem in the Old.