What Does European Backsliding Mean for America?

By Jack Corso

A 2020 protest for media freedom in Hungary
Image Credit: REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Democracy is in peril.

At no time since the end of the Second World War has democracy been so threatened. In Europe, a traditional bastion of democracy, states like Hungary and Poland are experiencing significant democratic backsliding. 

The rise of authoritarian-minded leadership within democracies is worrisome, as politically and sometimes religiously conservative governments threaten the rights of minority groups.

As the quintessential democracy, what role does the United States have in curbing democratic backsliding in allies?

Washington can choose one of two quite distinct approaches to this challenge. In the first approach, the United States takes a more proactive approach to defending democracy.

Conversely, the other position argues that the United States has no right in dictating the affairs of independent states. This is a difficult situation, as American foreign policy must be pragmatic and account for the policy preferences of its allies.

The United States could proactively establish itself in the affairs of its allies who are experiencing a backslide into authoritarianism. For many states, America’s constitution is the building block of their constitutions. Despite its faults, the American political system is very egalitarian and considers the social and political rights of its minority groups. 

However, despite the American political system serving as an influential role model for many young democracies in Europe, an American-style political system cannot account for the cultures of various countries. 

In Poland, for example, roughly 85% of the population identifies as a practicing Catholic. As the dominant religious group (and far more conservative than American Catholics), conservative Catholics influence Polish politics significantly.

Although the Biden administration should advocate for the rights of minority groups in backsliding states, there is very little that realistically can be done beyond offering vocal support for minority movements. 

Perhaps the opinion of the American presidential administration will have some influence on the Polish government. However, if a larger entity can influence backsliding European states, that responsibility falls at the feet of the European Union.

Although a difficult pill to swallow for the United States, perhaps the most pragmatic and realistic approach is to allow states to dictate their own domestic politics unimpeded. This is not to say that the United States shouldn’t advocate for a specific policy path, but what can the Biden administration do? 

Sanctions are out of the question in any situation. Sanctioning an ally state sends the message that the United States wants to significantly influence the domestic politics of an independent state regardless of the relationship.

Washington’s response to democratic backsliding in ally states should be pragmatic and restrained. The reality is that America’s responses to domestic developments potentially could lead to severe repercussions. 

A good example of how meddling can backfire on Washington is the nation of Georgia.

Georgia, a partner of the United States in the Caucasus, is experiencing significant backsliding. Since the imprisonment of former president Mikheil Saakashvili after he returned from Ukraine, the country has been falling back into its authoritarian tendencies. 

Any attempt to reverse democratic backsliding on the part of the United States may subject Georgia to further encroachment by Russia. Russia has military installations in the breakaway region of South Ossetia and actively backs the breakaway region of Abkhazia. 

Despite democratic backsliding and the imprisonment of Saakashvili, Georgia is certainly not an ally of the Putin regime. If the United States were to entrench itself in Georgian politics and push preferred policies (like pro-NATO integration), it might incentivize Russia to disrupt Georgia further. This would be an inherently destructive action and one that should be avoided.

Advocating for the political rights of impacted groups in backsliding states should remain a priority of the Biden administration.  Apart from this approach, there is little the United States can do. 

Democratic states commonly have strong institutions and populations that respect the rule of law. Political institutions and governmental organizations of certain states have membership which should be made responsible for correcting undemocratic practices, while the United States should leave these entities alone to act on their own.

Allowing states to act independently, especially on issues that affect the political rights of minorities, is at times a difficult reality to accept. However, the United States should trust its allies and allow them to make decisions for themselves.

Domestic institutions will always be more effective than foreign sponsors at preventing explicitly authoritarian elements from gaining significant political influence in capitals around the world. 

The Biden administration has signaled a willingness to opt for diplomacy, even with odious and adversarial states. This is a positive first step towards a more prudent American foreign policy. 

However, Washington should also restrain itself from attempting to heavily influence the domestic affairs of its allies, and trust that they will make political and social equality a priority on their own.

Jack Corso is a regular contributor to the Realist Review. He is a recent graduate of the Master’s Program in Political Science at the University of Alabama.            

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