By Emily Tamkin
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Bratislava on Tuesday, the second stop on his Central European tour. His message, which he made clear speaking on Monday in Budapest, is that the United States wants to reengage with the region to counter Russia and China.
But experts say that thinking of engagement in the region as a competition with other world powers encourages Central European countries not to realign themselves with the United States but to try to encourage that competition.
“While it is definitely a positive development that there is renewed U.S. interest and engagement — in that sense the administration is correct that you have to show up first to achieve anything — it comes at a time when there are mixed messages what that engagement exactly means,” Zselyke Csaky, research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House, told WorldViews.
“If it means primarily and above all business deals, governments in both countries can easily game the system, and even play the U.S., Russia or China against one another,” Csaky added.
Pompeo’s approach to the region — putting strategic interests and great power politics ahead of human rights concerns to beat back Russia and China from Central Europe — was the cornerstone of Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia Wess Mitchell’s tenure. Mitchell’s last day is Friday, but Pompeo is doubling down on Mitchell’s method.
“The way you engage is to compete,” Pompeo told reporters at a briefing alongside his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Szijjarto, on Monday. And Pompeo did win some from his competition this week. The United States and Hungary finally agreed on the text of a much-debated defense cooperation agreement. And Slovakia “selected the F-16 as its next generation fighter,” as the State Department proudly proclaimed ahead of the visit.
But regional leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have made a tactic of flirting with both the United States and Russia, and playing their desires off one another.
“Granting Mr. Orbán a meeting with America’s top diplomat — without first addressing the Prime Minister’s efforts to undercut democracy, security, and U.S. interests in the region — sends the wrong message,” Chris Maroshegyi, a senior director at Albright Stonebridge Group, wrote in an email. “It emboldens the Prime Minister and confers a sense of legitimacy that he is a pivotal leader on the international scene.”
There’s also the reality that, for the past year, what some have perceived of the Trump administration’s subjugation of human rights concerns to strategic interests hasn’t prompted Central Europeans, and particularly not Hungarians, to change course. Hungary is still expelling Central European University, the institute founded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, from Budapest, despite the Trump administration’s protestations; Hungary continued its diplomatic row with Ukraine.
“I think it’s fine if ‘competing’ means encouraging U.S. companies to bid in public tenders against the likes of Huawei and Rosatom, or sweet-talking Central Europeans into buying U.S. equipment instead of E.U.-made options,” agreed Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “I’d worry if ‘competing’ were to be understood as no longer holding Hungarians or Poles to high standards under the pretext that if we do, they will turn to Moscow or Beijing.”
Ironically, a Huawei billboard greeted Pompeo above Slovakia’s foreign ministry on Tuesday, according to one Twitter user.
The secretary of state has met with civil society groups on this trip, and, as human rights activists noted, he has announced that the United States would strengthen support for independent journalism, which has been under attack in both Hungary and Slovakia, where journalist Jan Kuciak was killed, apparently for uncovering corruption, a year ago this month.
“We can only welcome the State Department’s announced increase in support for independent journalism and independent media in Hungary and across Central Europe. This represents a positive step forward,” said Daniel Balson, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Amnesty International. “The devil is, of course, in the details and we will be looking to make sure the programs are robust and sustainable.”