Thoughts on the Visegrád Group: A View from the Potomac
30. 4. 2012
In the past two decades, the states of Central Europe have entered the American consciousness in a remarkable way. "Not so very long ago, one of these states was famously described by then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as “a far away country" populated by "people of whom we know nothing.” In the early 1990s, even the present author (a Czech expatriate living in the United States) remembers fielding questions from curious American classmates on what surely must have been the difficult realities of a childhood living in mud huts and hunting for daily sustenance—cheeky perhaps, but demonstrative.
Small though they still may be, in today’s globalized, digital age they are no longer quite so far away, and they have become places of which we actually now know a great deal. Places such as Budapest and Prague have become the darlings of students across the United States reviewing their university study abroad options, of businessmen looking for new investment climates and of couples searching for honeymoon destinations. Statesmen such as Václav Havel and Lech Wałesa have become household names, finding their way into many a political speech and lending their clout to many a Washington event.
This shift in cultural perception, from distant backwaters of the ‘other’ Europe, to trendy and desirable hotspots of the ‘new’ Europe, cannot be disentangled from the extraordinary political and economic journey of transition they underwent after the abrupt lifting of the Iron Curtain. No longer the vassals of some distant king or satellites of some greater power, the Visegrád states have become fully fledged, sovereign and contributory members of the Euro-Atlantic community; and despite some lingering warts, mostly economically vibrant and politically mature democracies.
Just two decades from the Warsaw Pact, they are considered among the United States’ staunchest and most respected allies. How this was achieved has been the subject of many a book, but in a woefully simplistic summary we can say at least the following: visionary leadership (as mentioned above), determination, international assistance, a singularity of purpose and sound strategy.
On the latter point, enter an unsung hero: the Visegrád Group (V4). Founded in 1991, the V4—an informal regional alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia—was designed to foster regional harmony and concentrate and underwrite the efforts of its four members in accelerating their accession into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU).
With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that it achieved its purpose marvelously. Buoyed by favorable geopolitical winds and an easily definable common port of destination, the ship of regional cooperation was able to sail its passengers swiftly across turbulent and uncertain waters with record speed. Having achieved its purpose, however, it was quickly all but forgotten, languishing in port for half a decade as the sailors were enjoying their shore leave, and widely considered a memorable but ultimately moribund vehicle.
No Longer a Vehicle for Entry, Rather a Platform for Navigation
In the past two years this reality has changed, catching many by surprise. Sparked under concerted Hungarian and Slovak stewardship, the Visegrád Group has embarked on a sort of renaissance and come crashing back onto the European scene. The reasons that allowed for this revamp are manifold. One is political and economic turbulence in the EU. Another is the commonality of interests among regional policymaker establishments after a string of elections heralded an amenable constellation of mostly like-minded governments. Yet another is a regional perception (not entirely unfounded) that the American attitude towards Europe as a whole, and Central Europe in particular, is changing. Faced with this peculiar geopolitical cocktail, it seems that the V4 mechanism has again found a raison d’être, relevant no longer as a vehicle for entry but rather as a platform for navigation.
The complexities of policymaking in Europe are mindboggling at the best of times, but one thing stands evident: go-it-alone attitudes are unlikely to bear fruit and the EU (and international) system rewards teamwork. It is perhaps hopeful then that the Visegrád states—linked as they are by history and geography—have done their homework. Through regular meetings and consultations since 2010 they have managed to coordinate their policies to various degrees of success on areas that not only represent shared concerns, including energy policy, transatlantic security and Europe’s role in its neighborhood, but are also key U.S. interests as well.
Seemingly the V4 states are starting to realize that in today’s world, what they would have no hope of accomplishing individually they might yet influence when acting together: many have started to notice. The V4 is showing early signs of its latent policy relevance; that it is on the precipice of becoming what it always had the potential to be, a presence greater than (or at least equal to) the sum of its parts. This development, should it continue, could be of profound importance for the transatlantic community in the changing geopolitical order.
Doing the un-Central European
For Central Europeans, it would allow them more room to do something profoundly un-Central European: not only exist within the Euro-Atlantic framework but actively help shape its trajectory. For Europe, still lingering in deep crisis, a pro-active and coherent Visegrád region could provide some much needed medicine on the path to stability: an infusion of leadership and optimism from its (mostly) economically dynamic newest members. And the United States, increasingly stretched at home and abroad, has need not just of friends, but of partners who can play a part in sharing the burdens of global leadership.
The net result is that today, “Visegrád” is not simply a word that can be heard in the corridors of Brussels, but is increasingly entering into corners of the American political discourse as well. But if the V4 has replanted the seeds of awareness, it has yet to firmly establish its identity and secure the level of confidence in Washington that its individual members can boast. Views of the V4 are still marked by misunderstanding, vacillating between cautious optimism and benign neglect, susceptible either to cheerleading on the one hand or being overtly discounted on the other. Assuredness in the Group’s longevity is not exactly rampant; and not just overseas, but often among the Group’s members as well.
And therein lays the problem: if the revival can be considered noteworthy, so too must we be aware of its continued fragility. The V4 may be a ‘group,’ but it is not yet a ‘bloc.’ Its lack of a formal structure is both its greatest strength, allowing for flexibility and simplicity without a self-serving bureaucracy, but also its greatest weakness as it requires full buy-in from all members. This set up naturally lends itself to predominantly ad-hoc cooperation and is susceptible to periods of neglect. And for all of their recent joint accomplishments, the Visegrád states show just as many signs of division as they do unity.
Ask Not What Is, but What Could Be
Today the Visegrád states stand in front of a window of opportunity—the geopolitical drivers encouraging regional cooperation are currently in favorable alignment. Efforts thus far have demonstrated the potential benefits that concerted regional coordination can bring to a region not traditionally counted among the richest or most powerful. In a world showing signs of moving towards structured, confederated regionalism, the V4 could be the platform from which Central Europe firmly establishes itself as a pillar in its own right on the European map, both protecting and projecting its interests. But if the Visegrád states want to be taken seriously, then they have to start getting serious. To truly achieve a lasting impact, and not just momentary successes, the V4 members will need to adopt a more long-term, structured and strategic approach to their club.
First and foremost, they need to create and cultivate a culture of trust, a currency traditionally scarce in the region. And more often than not, it is the lack of trust that acts as the greatest inhibitor to more robust Visegrád cooperation. The key here rests with starting small, identifying non-controversial pockets of opportunity where convergence of interests is high and netting small victories that reinforce confidence for larger projects down the line.
Already, we are seeing progress on this front. Starting with joint declarations and common positions within the EU, the V4 members are now casting exploratory tendrils into more politically difficult areas, such as defense cooperation. Notably, there are even plans for a joint Visegrád EU Battle Group on the cards, an encouraging prospect. Since defense projects are tangible and have clear metrics, they represent an avenue to help, over time, bridge this “trust gap” while buttressing wider political aims.
No Trust Without Commitment
A corollary but crucial second element is commitment. One cannot generate trust without demonstrating a commitment to the larger whole, and vice versa. The key to this equation will rest with Poland. As the largest of the V4 states (in fact, individually as large as the other three combined), success or failure will rest largely on the degree of buy-in from Warsaw. But this is often problematic. Given its growing stature on the European and transatlantic stages, and distinctive advantages in economic, political and military capabilities, Poland often finds itself gravitating away from its natural role as regional leader and toward higher stages of diplomacy, occasionally causing friction among its Visegrád partners. But this is a mistake. Where would we be today if the Peloponnesian allies had abandoned the Athenians at the Battle of Salamis?
But perhaps most important is “strategic vision.” The United States wants the V4 to succeed; but the V4 states themselves need to ultimately want the same. The key is to understand that a robust Visegrád Group is not simply a question of convenience, but rather one of geostrategic interest. In the above case, for example, Poland would benefit from assuming the leadership mantle on a regional level without having to sacrifice its ambitions as a large power. In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive but complementary—regional efforts help underwrite Polish priorities at the EU level by establishing Warsaw as the bridge between Europe’s West and East, increasing its clout. The smaller partners likewise benefit from the heightened access to the centers of decision making.
The way ahead for the Visegrád Group will be difficult. To succeed, it will require a corollary renaissance of the kind of vision, determination and strategic foresight that characterized Central European capitals in the 1990s. But in the spirit of that most cherished American maxim (or at least that most memorable of “Star Wars” quotes), I say: “Never tell me the odds.”