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Presidential candidate Joe Biden raised hackles among our allies last week. He told the ABC town hall audience “You see what’s happened in everything from Belarus to Poland to Hungary, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world.” He went on to turn this into a campaign plank, but our allies in Eastern Europe were understandably upset.
Hungary, for example, is close to joining only seven NATO countries that meet their defense budget obligations to the alliance. They are our partners in the western Balkans, where our State Department and USAID have had substantial success bringing peace to a war-torn region. Poland is an important NATO partner too, with whom we are negotiating basing rights as a long-term hedge against Russian aggression.
For the most part American politicians don’t care that much about how they sound overseas, believing that the power of the United States will force offended populations to get in line. It is an odd moment for Biden, though, as one of the Democratic Party’s complaints against his opponent Donald Trump has been Trump’s use of harsh language towards allies. Trump points out that his language is just what has strengthened NATO by getting states to pony up monies long-promised but never delivered. His opponents argue that his harsh language to the Germans especially can only weaken the alliance.
Yet if they believe that, they should take care to criticize these eastern European states with more diplomatic language. These states have responded much more emphatically to US outreach. In addition to the basing agreements with Poland mentioned above, Hungary and the United States just signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement, which Hungary’s parliament ratified in 2019. It hosts NATO facilities for military medicine and a heavy airlift wing. It contributes forces to our counter-ISIS mission and operations in Kosovo. Hungary is striving to be a good partner nation. That does not mean that no criticisms at all can be levied, of course, but if the Democrats are serious about not harming our alliances they should levy their criticisms with care.
Additionally, we Americans should reflect on how much our own partisan politics may be inflaming our attitudes here. This division over which European states to praise or criticize has been around since at least the second Bush administration. Donald Rumsfeld distinguished a rising and friendly “New Europe” in the east from the ponderous, recalcitrant “Old Europe” centered around the EU leadership. The Obama administration preferred Germany to Poland, just as they preferred Iran to Israel. The words our politicians use may be harsh or kind but could be less based on the facts of a given country, and more based on our own domestic agendas.
If so, it would explain the dynamic on Hungary. Left-wing NGOs have been increasingly critical of Hungary’s Orban government. Freedom House has spoken harshly of its fears about democracy there. Legal scholar Gabor Halmai has criticized the COVID-19 emergency powers law as entirely too sweeping for a democratic government. Yet it is Democrats here at home who favor sweeping powers to combat COVID-19, even where democratic mechanisms have rejected such powers. In Michigan, for example, the governor continues to assert similar sweeping executive powers even after they were rejected by her legislature, and declared both unconstitutional and illegal by her state Supreme Court.
Democracy is not their real complaint, in other words. The Democratic Party’s platform aims at a strengthened super-national governance. The EU governs undemocratically, but our Democrats want to see more power located in Brussels and less in the national parliaments. They love NATO, but they want it led by the same Old Europe that leads the EU.
Governments that go their own way, pursuing national rather than international interests, are to be kept in check – whether or not they are allies, and whether or not the criticisms are entirely fair or honest. We should do better as Americans. If we cannot keep our domestic politics from spilling over into international affairs, at least we should be honest with ourselves about it.