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November 22, 2020

Unexpected competition: A US strategy to keep its Central and Eastern European allies as allies in an era of great-power competition

By John Blocher



New Report:

Unexpected Competition

A US strategy to keep its Central and Eastern European allies as allies in an era of great-power competition

By Col John W. Blocher, USAF

Reprioritizing American soft power

The United States has successfully identified China and Russia as major threats to the rules-based order in an era of great-power competition. However, it has failed to articulate and implement a comprehensive strategy on exactly how to counter these threats. Through its inaction and its disengagement with Central and Eastern European allies, the United States has left a gap for Russia and China to fill. Recent US behavior and policy, particularly that of rejecting allies to varying degrees, has been self-defeating and goes against the very ideals that it strives to fulfill. Regaining a strategic foothold in the Central and Eastern European region will be crucial to pushing against Chinese and Russian bellicosity worldwide.

Growing Chinese and Russian influence

In the face of growing Russian and Chinese influence across all domains, the United States must develop a strategy that efficiently and effectively strengthens its position as a partner of choice for Central and Eastern European countries. While the United States depends on the post-World War II and post-Cold War assumption that it is the most desirable ally, China and Russia are sprinting to take advantage of the lack of US engagement in a changing region. The United States has defined and acknowledged the effects of great-power competition, but it has yet to develop a strategy to reestablish connections with Central and Eastern European allies as a great-power competitor.

Case study: Hungary

Hungary provides a pressing and relevant case study to draw from as a model for US engagement in Central and Eastern Europe. US-Hungary relations have shifted drastically over the past thirty years, and Russia and China are exerting increasingly pressure on Hungary in all sectors. However, the United States can regain this crucial relationship by reengaging in strong diplomacy and economic cooperation with Hungary. It is no longer enough to simply rely on passive engagement; an active, deliberate approach to foreign policy is necessary to counter threats from the greatest US adversaries.

In Unexpected competition: A US strategy to keep its Central and Eastern European allies as allies in an era of great-power competition, Col John W. Blocher details how to effectively develop relationships, with the case study of Hungary, to maintain a competitive advantage against China and Russia. The report fills a critical gap by providing a strategy of how the United States can and needs to engage with its allies and partners in Central and Eastern Europe to counter China and Russia’s growing influence in those regions.

The strategy focuses on six elements that work together to provide lines of effort to ensure the success of the strategy as a whole:

  • Bolstering foundations by renewing American commitments to NATO, open markets, information-sharing, and foresight.
  • Tailoring engagement to cater to the individual diversity of each nation and the populations within each allied nation.
  • Committing to patience and consistency by championing bipartisan agendas and pursuing civil-society engagement.
  • Engaging and empowering the public by exposing disinformation in the native language of allied countries, thereby building internal resilience to Russian and Chinese influence.
  • Providing alternatives to Chinese and Russian economic sources by investing in infrastructure and facilitating defense procurement with US allies in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • Showing respect for allies by engaging in courteous diplomacy and supporting strategic equality with its partners.

READ THE REPORT to learn more.

A new report by:

Col John W. Blocher, USAF

2019-20 Senior US Air Force Fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

Atlantic Council


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Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.