This interview is part of a series of interviews with academics and practitioners early in their careers. Current research results and projects as well as advice for other young scientists are discussed in the interviews.
Carisa Nietsche is an Associate Fellow for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She specializes in European security; China’s Growing Influence in Europe; and threats to democracy in Europe, particularly Hungary, Poland and Turkey. Carisa previously worked with the Brookings Institution communications team and the Wilson Center’s Global Women ‘s Leadership Initiative. Her internships include time in the Office for European Union and Regional Affairs of the US State Department, the European Parliament in Brussels, the Transatlantic Strategy Team of the International Republican Institute and the Center on the United States & Europe of the Brookings Institution as well as the Project on International Order & Strategy. Her writing and analysis appeared in Foreign policy, the national interest, and The hill, among other.
What (or who) made the most important changes in your thinking or encouraged you to pursue your research area?
I was fortunate to have excellent mentors in the graduate school. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, my current boss and former professor, is a master at bridging the academic and political world. Your work on how democracies are falling behind, how autocrats are using technology, and how autocracies are falling has shaped my thinking about trends in democracies and autocracies. Abe Newman, my former thesis advisor and professor, always encourages me to think beyond security and defense and to think about trade, investment and technology policies in transatlantic relations. In particular, his work on weapons-based interdependence, transatlantic debates over privacy and the EU’s regulatory power has changed my thinking. I also often find myself adopting concepts from Bob Kagan’s work on transatlantic relations, Steve Levitsky and Lucian Way on hybrid regimes, Cristóval Rovira Kaltwasser’s work on populism as a corrective tool for democracy, Kristine Lee and Alex Sullivan’s work on reshaping international organizations in China rethink and seva Gunitsky’s work on how autocrats use social media.
How do you expect US-European relations to change after Joe Biden is the new US President? What impact does Biden’s election have on European security?
President Biden’s core message is the importance of working with allies and partners in the United States. After four years of scourging allies by the Trump administration, Biden must convince Europe that the United States is a predictable and reliable ally. But the Europeans still have two questions in the back of their minds: Does Biden’s victory mark the death knell of Trumpism or does Europe have to work with a Trumpian candidate in another four years? Is Biden’s victory a mere change in rhetoric or a change in policy?
In the area of European security, Biden’s first step was to restore confidence in allies. In his first call to NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, Biden reiterated the United States’ commitment to Article 5, describing it as a “sacred commitment”. Despite the shift in rhetoric, the Biden government has announced that it will continue to encourage European governments to meet the 2% of GDP pledge and spend more on their defense. The government’s approach, however, will be vastly different: they will no longer refer to NATO allies as “freeriders”. The government should combine its demand for higher European defense spending with the promise of greater strategic autonomy for Europe. With the United States focused on competing with China, Europe needs to do more in its own backyard, including with Russia.
Another major shift in European security will be a greater emphasis on non-traditional security issues such as climate change, pandemic management and hybrid threats. Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan mentioned in his first speech that “foreign policy is domestic policy and domestic policy is foreign policy”. This suggests that the Biden administration will have a greater focus on how NATO can adapt to address these unconventional security issues – some of which will require greater EU-NATO cooperation.
What were China’s most important steps in Eastern Europe during the Trump administration? Do you expect the Biden government to counter them?
In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) the tide has turned with regard to China’s influence. While China pushed its belt and road initiative through the Budapest-Belgrade Railway, 17 + 1 format, Huawei 5G, and mask diplomacy, those initiatives largely stalled. There are two examples highlighting China’s failed overtures in the region. For one, Xi tried to revive the 17 + 1 format earlier this month. It was received with a frosty response in a number of CEE countries, and six countries did not participate. Similarly, the CEE countries’ demand for the introduction of the Huawei 5G kit stalled. In this case, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic and Estonia have banned Huawei from their networks. A notable exception is Hungary, where the government made no such promise to ban Huawei from the networks.
The Biden government has a number of instruments in place to counter Beijing’s overtures in CEE. In the past few weeks, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed the US’s commitment to the Three Seas Initiative, which could represent an alternative to Chinese infrastructure and investments in the region. In addition, CEE offers the opportunity to explore alternatives to Huawei 5G. The US legislature should reintroduce the Transatlantic Telecommunications Security Act and promote 5G alternatives such as Open RAN (Radio Access Network) in CEE.
What are the strategic goals behind the activities of the Chinese Communist Party in Europe?
Beijing has some strategic goals in Europe. The first is to compete with the United States as a global superpower. This goal is being achieved in Europe by selecting US allies and trying to break the consensus between the US and Europe. Another way to achieve this is to break the consensus within the European Union. Beijing bought political influence through economic influence. For example, shortly after the Chinese shipping company COSCO invested in the Greek port of Piraeus, Greece blocked an EU proposal in the United States’ Human Rights Council that criticized China’s human rights violations. After all, Beijing would like to redesign the image of the world and set the road traffic rules. To achieve this goal, Beijing is exporting its digital authoritarianism, promoting unfair trade practices, and taking leadership positions in international organizations to reshape the international system in its favor.
Does the 17 + 1 initiative (the economic partnership between China and Central and Eastern European countries) affect people’s right to participate in democratic processes in these countries?
Not directly, but it has other implications for democracy. As mentioned earlier, the 17 + 1 initiative hinders the EU consensus. At the national level, China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the 17 + 1 Initiative have had an impact on some dimensions of democracy. My CNAS colleagues argue that BRI projects in countries with a high level of corruption have only fueled this corruption because of disbursements to politicians. The CEE countries are not immune to this, especially given the high level of kleptocracy in the region. For example, 150 km of the Hungarian section of the Budapest-Belgrade railway line is being built by the CRE consortium, a unit of the Opus Global holding company controlled by Lorinc Meszaros, a loyalist to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. This is another example of the Orbán regime running public tenders to enrich their friends and family. Another negative consequence for democracy is that BRI projects are decoupled from local economic needs. Some projects mainly use Chinese firms and workers, which prevents the projects from boosting the local economy and transferring skills to local workers. In addition, the Budapest-Belgrade Railway is an example of a project that is financially unsustainable for the host government and can put a strain on national finances.
What are you working on right now?
Together with Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz and Joseph Wright, I am currently working on a project to study personalism in democracies. The project specifically addresses the rise in personalism – the extent to which leaders exert a greater influence than other actors in key institutions and political parties – and the creation of their own political parties. Our analysis shows that personalism is increasing in democracies and countries with personalistic leaders are at greater risk of democratic decline.
I also work at the center for a New American Security Make Room initiative, which aims to empower and equip underrepresented national security populations to pursue and develop professional goals and leadership skills. I developed the Make Room mentoring network, which connects newbies, entrants and young professionals with specific offers from volunteer mentors, including the opportunity to write articles together, conduct informational interviews and resume reviews. The initiative aims to diversify the national security forces and make them look more like America.
What is the most important advice you can give young scientists?
Get your voice and ideas out there. Write this opinion. Speak in this meeting. If you’re having trouble getting started on an article, write one up with a colleague or classmate. Co-writing is one of the best ways to get started and refine your ideas and arguments. Once you start writing, consider your audience. When writing an opinion piece, write clearly and leave the academic jargon behind. Your grandma should be able to understand your reasoning. Our generations – Millennials and Gen Z – will face a number of the world’s most pressing challenges. Now is the time to bring new, new ideas into the political space.
Further reading on e-international relations