The victory of Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the battle for the presidency of the United States, caused concerns among the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) about the future cooperation with the new administration. The upcoming presidency will focus on, among others, reversing Donald Trump’s decisions. Will the relations with CEE countries share a similar fate?
The leaders of countries formerly constituting the Eastern Bloc remember how the United States under Obama sacrificed the interests of the region to improve relations with Russia. At the same time, the US was indifferent to warnings about the threat coming from Moscow. Eventually, following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the presidential administration of that time took certain measures to protect Poland and the Baltic states from a potential Russian aggression. Certainly, however, that response was belated and the previous actions, or lack thereof, severely damaged relations between the Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs) and the United States.
Under Donald Trump, the aforesaid relations improved significantly. The former president engaged in cooperation with the CEECs and maintained good relations with Great Britain at the expense of other Western European countries. During Trump’s presidency, the aforementioned cooperation concerned fields such as security, diplomacy, digital communication or economy. This was evident in the growing number of high-level bilateral meetings as well as the relocation of US troops to Poland. It seems that the previous president fully understood that this region will be a significant area of rivalry with China and Russia.
Undoubtedly, Joe Biden will return to good relations with Western Europe, as was the case under Barack Obama. However, it will be essential for the new president not to waste the achievements of his predecessor concerning CEE. It is worth mentioning that the new US president was a strong advocate of admitting the countries of the region into NATO in the 1990s, whilst during his vice presidency he often participated in negotiations with Central Europe, the Baltic States and the Balkans.
Biden, just like his predecessor, recognizes political interdependencies and the ongoing rivalry between the superpowers. Frequently, he spoke harshly about the authorities in Moscow or Beijing. It seems that he will be much more decisive than Trump in this regard. However, this is due to other reasons. The measures taken by the US to date were more transactional in nature, tied to Washington’s interests. Biden, as a Democrat, evaluates other players in the political arena on the basis of shared liberal values, such as the rule of law, democracy, human rights or ecology. Accordingly, the rivalry with China will be based on countering economic abuses and seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in global maritime transport, aviation or energy sector. Human rights violations committed by Beijing or Moscow as well as authoritarian governance will also play a significant role in this case.
Energy sector will be a central area of rivalry and disputes in the CEE region. Recently, Russia, China and the United States have been trying to increase their influence in this field by signing contracts for the construction of nuclear power plants. A few years ago, the Hungarian government decided to expand one of them with the help of the Russian company Rosatom. Poland has already decided to cooperate with the US in this respect. However, this matter is still being debated in the other countries of the Eastern bloc whilst the outcomes of these negotiations may strengthen the regional influence of one of the superpowers.
Biden’s victory was a cause for concern of the CEECs, resulting in uncertainty over a possible withdrawal from earlier arrangements by the new president. This is particularly significant in the case of Poland, which signed an agreement with the US last October. It concerns the development of a nuclear program associated with the construction of six nuclear power plants between 2033 and 2043. Nevertheless, Republicans and Democrats are in favor of continuing the current policy. It is also backed by Biden’s approach to environmental issues, i.e., moving away from coal in order to fight global warming.
Apart from the energy sector and nuclear power plants, one of the main topics is the Nord Stream 2 project. The US perceives it as a serious geopolitical risk, which increases Europe’s dependence on Russia as well as weakens European security and stability. The completion of the project will sideline the current transit countries in Eastern Europe as well as increase the political and energy dependence of countries in the region on Russia and Germany. Joe Biden has been even more critical in this regard than Donald Trump and called for further sanctions that will prevent the pipeline from being completed. There is a clear cross-party consensus in the US on this matter as well.
Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States significantly supported the Three Seas Initiative, which aims to enhance the transport, energy and digital infrastructure among 12 countries in the area between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas. The former president saw the project as a potential alternative to China’s New Silk Road and Russian efforts to destabilize the region. The project was backed by Republicans and Democrats – consequently, a bipartisan resolution supporting the Three Seas Initiative was adopted in November 2020.
On the basis of the aforementioned matters, it could be concluded that concerns about a possible departure from the actions of Donald Trump by the new administration are redundant. Additionally, Biden is critical of Russia and values NATO, so his presidency will have a positive impact on Poland’s security. Authorities in Warsaw underline that Poland is the largest pro-American country in the entire EU after Brexit took place. However, Biden’s perception of political partners, based on the shared values, may be a cause for concern because, according to some, they are violated in Poland or Hungary. Certainly, this matter will be discussed with the new administration often than before. This could be inferred, for instance, from the Biden’s statement made during his electoral campaign, when he caused confusion among the Polish authorities after mentioning Poland and Belarus (where Alexander Lukashenko brutally cracked down on the opposition after winning the potentially rigged election last year) in the same sentence and referring to the “rise of totalitarian regimes in the world.”
Although the aforementioned issue may create tensions between Washington and Warsaw or Budapest, it seems that Joe Biden will continue the policy of the former president in terms of relations with the CEECs. Although certain matters will be handled differently, we should not expect any significant changes in this regard. To sum up, Joe Biden will probably continue the military cooperation with the countries of the region, maintain the support for the Three Seas Initiative as well as work towards extending influence over the nuclear energy sector and halting the construction of Nord Stream 2. However, relations with the US, especially the bilateral ones, will heavily depend on the compatibility of liberal and democratic values.
Author: Jakub Łyjak
Jakub Łyjak graduated from law at the University of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and economics at the Poznań University of Economics. He also studied Business Administration (Betriebswirtschaftslehre) at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster. He gained professional experience in the field of law and non-governmental organizations, including Polish Entrepreneurship and Leadership Association and Center for American Studies.
This article was written as part of the statutory activities of the Polish think tank Warsaw Institute. If you appreciate the content prepared by our partner, we appeal to you for financial support for this non-profit organisation.