By John M. Grondelski
In the recent past a planned trip to a Central European country by a Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (EUR) deputy assistant secretary was fairly big news within EUR’s Office of Central European Affairs (CE). However, the pace has picked up considerably in the past few years, with visits becoming more common. In the last six months alone, the United States has received the Polish president at the White House; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovenia and has received his Romanian, Slovak, and Slovene counterparts in Washington; and three different under secretaries of state have touched down in multiple Central European capitals. These visits and events have kept the CE staff busy and active as they continue to plan and conduct bilateral relations within 10 diverse European states. CE focuses their mission on seven of Europe’s youngest democracies (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) and three neutrals (Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland).
America’s primary geopolitical adversaries—Russia and China—continue to compete for influence in Central Europe. Russia still aspires to maintain spheres of influence in its former Soviet empire by occupying parts of neighboring Ukraine, actively instrumentalizing disinformation and malign influence in the area. Communist China has returned as well, using relationships dating back to 1949 to pursue its malign influence via opaque investment among other means. Chinese discount pricing appeals in a region that has made huge economic strides in the 30 years since the collapse of communism, but that still has a long way to go to reach Western European levels of development.
Having suffered from ostensible “liberation” by the Soviet Red Army, Central European countries actively seek partnership with the United States. Positive popular attitudes there towards the United States are among the highest in Europe. Governmental attitudes generally follow with sustained U.S. engagement.
“Some Central European countries have presented themselves as ‘bridges between East and West,’” explained EUR Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Boyse, who oversees CE. “We’ve had to remind some Allies they are not ‘bridges,’ because in 1989 they freely and eagerly chose to rejoin the West. For the most part, that message has stuck with governments, even if we still see ‘old think’ in parts of the population.”
CE’s eight desk officers translate that message into action every day. Security cooperation is a top priority for most Central European countries. It takes many forms, like increased U.S. presence along NATO’s Eastern Flank and upgrading military cooperation by replacing legacy Soviet gear with state-of-the-art NATO interoperable equipment. Poland is buying 32 F-35 multirole combat aircraft, while Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Romania are modernizing with F-16 fighter aircraft.
Military purchases also enable Allies to meet their commitments in burden sharing, undertaken at the Wales and Warsaw NATO Summits. The United States has recently signed new Defense Cooperation Agreements with Poland and Hungary and 10-year Defense Cooperation Roadmaps with Romania and Bulgaria.
Military cooperation also includes Central Europe’s neutrals. Austria is a Partnership for Peace member, and many state National Guard forces are competing to become its state partner. Two U.S. companies are competing to modernize Switzerland’s air force with U.S. fighter jets.
Security is more than military might. Modern life is energy-dependent, and much of Central Europe continues to depend on Russia for fuel. Therefore, freeing itself from Russia has been a regional priority, especially with the Kremlin’s attempt to further solidify European dependence on Russia by building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline—a new export gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea, bypassing Central Europe.
Western cooperation on energy security has grown in recent years. Poland’s Baltic Pipe will connect it to Norway for natural gas. U.S. liquefied natural gas has been a regional game changer. Poland, Bulgaria, and other Central European countries have ramped up U.S. liquified natural gas purchases.
Many Central European economies also continue to run on nuclear energy, and several remain dependent on coal to generate electricity. Nuclear energy establishes long-term (more than 50 year) relationships that have, in the past, usually meant dependence on Moscow in Central Europe’s case. In the past 18 months, the United States has signed nuclear cooperation memoranda of understanding with Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Slovenia.
Security also presupposes the integrity of critical infrastructure like telecommunications. Five years ago, Chinese firms like Huawei and ZTE dominated the market for emerging 5G networks. Not anymore.
Extensive Department of State efforts highlighted the security threats that untrusted vendors pose and demonstrated that security usually does not come from the lowest bidder. Central European countries are now actively excluding untrusted vendors from their networks; Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia have all signed 5G Joint Declarations with the United States. The Czech Republic has hosted two international conferences that established the “Prague Proposals” for 5G network security. Many Central European countries are looking at or enacting foreign investment screening legislation mirroring U.S. models.
CE supports U.S. partnership with the region’s most ambitious regional initiative: the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). 3SI is an effort by 12 countries (six countries whose territories were part of the former Warsaw Pact countries plus the three Baltic states and Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia) to better connect north-south energy, telecommunications, and transportation infrastructure. Under communism, that infrastructure largely went east-west, a trend paradoxically reinforced by European integration. It is still easier to get from Warsaw to Brussels than from Warsaw to Sofia—a shorter distance.
3SI countries represent 25 percent of the European Union’s population but only 10 percent of its gross domestic product, a result of the devastation communism left in its wake. The U.S. government strongly supports 3SI efforts to better economically integrate Europe and reinforce regional prosperity. Pompeo recently pledged up to $1 billion via the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to advance 3SI’s efforts. Leveraging public and private capital, 3SI is already helping overcome these economic disparities, build long-term prosperity, and provide the economic stimulus, post-COVID-19, that countries will need. President Donald J. Trump attended the 2017 Warsaw 3SI Summit, and senior Cabinet officials have participated in the three subsequent summits. Pompeo joined the most recent 3SI Leaders’ Meeting in Estonia via video conference.
CE’s operational tempo may have picked up in recent years, but the office has sustained high morale along with productivity.
John M. Grondelski is deputy director of the Office of Central European Affairs