Recent international public opinion polls show that US global image has taken a hit since President Donald Trump assumed office. Some of the starkest decline in support has been recorded in traditional Western European allies. However, the ‘new’ Europe comprising former communist states still welcomes US leadership, as evident from the recent Three Seas Initiative summit in Poland.
Barack Obama gave his first big foreign policy speech in April 2009 in the Czech Republic, in Prague, just hours after North Korea test-launched its long-range missile. This did not stop the 44th US president from making a bold claim about his determination to free the world from nuclear weapons. Eight years later, his successor held his first big speech in Europe in neighbouring Poland. The circumstances surrounding the speech were strikingly similar, as President Donald Trump delivered his address not long after yet another, and this time even more worrying, North Korean missile launch.
However, his message was far removed from Obama’s idealism. Trump painted yet another gloomy picture of Western civilisation under attack from terrorists and all of those who don’t respect “timeless traditions and customs”, as well as the enemy at home in the form of “a steady creep of government bureaucracy”. For many in the West that the US president was referring to, this seemed like yet another one of the administration’s wrongheaded messages echoing the controversial and widely-disputed ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis of the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington.
Trump’s speech certainly would not have received resounding applause in Berlin or Paris, where public confidence in the US president to do the right thing regarding world affairs is currently at 11 per cent and 14 per cent respectively, according to the latest Pew Research Center report. However, in Warsaw it was met with strong approval, which came as as little surprise for observers of political developments in Poland. The largest former communist country in the European Union has seen considerable democratic backsliding over the past couple of years and is currently ruled by a party that shares some of Trump’s stances on refugees, women’s reproductive rights, the judiciary and freedom of the press.
Three Seas Initiative – an opening for the US
Before heading to Germany to participate in the G20 summit, which in numerous instances appeared to look more like the G19 v. the US, Trump took part in the Three Seas Initiative meeting in Warsaw. The latter is a relatively recent diplomatic endeavour comprising a dozen Central and Eastern European states which are surrounded by the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Sea and, except for Austria, share the legacy of experience of communist rule.
The initiative is committed to projects that would better integrate the region, particularly given the limited efforts in developing regional transport infrastructure and potential for greater intra-regional trade and investment. Moreover, energy security and the need for diversification of energy sources has been an equally important impetus for cooperation in this part of Europe which still heavily relies on Russian gas.
The summit in Hamburg and events surrounding it largely overshadowed the meeting at which the US president was greeted with great support from the newer member states of the European Union, particularly after expressing his interest in the initiative and seeing an opening for US businesses in infrastructure projects and exporting natural gas. If some of the proposed projects go ahead, they could be touted as a win-win for both sides: the Central and Eastern European states will be able to satisfy their energy needs without having to depend exclusively on Russia, while the US economy will receive multiple boosts.
However, there are potential roadblocks moving forward. Many of the states involved have long-term gas import contracts with Russia’s gas monopoly, Gazprom, while some are even home to Gazprom’s subsidiaries. There are also higher costs in switching to more remote energy sources in the near to medium term. Moreover, not all of those involved in the initiative are equally anti-Russian; most notably, Hungary. Equally, much will hinge on the future development of relations between the US and Russia.
Old versus New Europe in the Trump era
Finally, the impressions following the meeting between Trump and Central and Eastern European leaders were in many ways reminiscent of the distinction between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe that the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made on the eve of the war in Iraq in 2003. Just as back then, a US administration recording low approval ratings in Western Europe has found friends in the former communist European states.
Yet, unlike in the early 2000s, today the ‘new’ Europe is no longer in unison over its commitment to European integration, liberal values and international cooperation. Thus there are open questions as to the implications and direction of the Three Seas Initiative. While some interpret it as a platform for functional cooperation, others see it as a harbinger of deeper rifts within the EU and realignment within the transatlantic alliance.