A confluence of events and decisions involving American leadership over the past decade has weakened the US role in Europe and its perception by transatlantic partners abroad, according to Senior Fellow Jeffrey Gedmin and Deputy Director Simona Lightfoot of the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. Four factors have ushered in the present situation in Central Europe, they write in a new analysis:
- First, many believed that Central Europe would quickly and easily graduate from the “school of democracy”, but the damaged incurred by forty years of communist rule and pernicious legacy of totalitarianism proved more difficult to overcome. … Institutions could be planted relatively quickly, but was more needed to sink deep and durable roots? What would it take for the values, habits, and behaviors of a new democratic culture to take hold?
- Second, the United States overestimated its influence in assisting the region’s transition, and certainly underestimated the effect of its subsequent disengagement.
- Third, Russia returned with a vengeance, employing increasingly aggressive and hostile foreign policies to US and Western interests.
- Fourth, the European Union is in trouble, and not just because of Brexit. In some intellectual circles in Central and Eastern Europe, a new moral relativism is on the rise and may soon become part of what drives the forces of disunity today across Central and Eastern Europe.
However, it would run counter to US interests to divorce itself from helping to reinforce a strong Europe, the authors suggest, outlining three recommendations for the United States to respond to the rise of populism and decline of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic:
- First, the United States should share practices and capabilities to help create an “innovation hub” in the region and support local start-ups and entrepreneurs.
- Second, the United States should emphasize the accomplishments and gains brought by democratic freedoms to advance a strong transatlantic narrative, especially among the next generation:
In advancing a strong transatlantic narrative to win the hearts and minds of people, especially the next generation. The United States must emphasize its accomplishments, the gains brought by freedom, and its future potential. It must strengthen its focus on strategic communication, including through digital and social media, to push back on Russia’s propaganda. The United States has to drive energetic conversations about how it makes democracy more transparent, effective, and appealing to younger generations, so they are less inclined to look for populist alternatives.
- Third, the United States should set an example of burden-sharing and moral leadership by taking in more refugees itself and helping to reverse the populist, isolationist agenda.
“The United States may indeed remain a flawed superpower today, but who else among the world’s democracies is prepared to step up to lead today?” Gedmin and Lightfoot ask. “The United States does not have the luxury, just as it never did in the past, of fixing itself at home first, so that it can return to the problems of the world later.”