The foreign minister of Slovenia, a small Balkan country that many Americans associate with native daughter Melania Trump, came to Washington last week to warn that the United States must make its leadership more visible in Europe or risk being eclipsed by China and Russia.
Miro Cerar, a former prime minister who now is Slovenia’s top diplomat, met Friday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton. It was the first official visit paid to Washington by a Slovenian foreign minister since 2010.
Although Slovenia is a nation of just 2 million people, it has attracted a lot of interest from China, Cerar said in an interview with The Washington Post. The United States has been much less visible by comparison, he added.
“It’s not enough to have good economic cooperation,” he said. “I tell you, the Chinese come to Europe. As prime minister, I met five times with the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in order to discuss political relations and business. So I think it would be very good if our friends and allies in the United States would be more present in the region.”
At a time when the United States is turning inward with President Trump’s “America First” agenda, China and Russia have expanded their influence around the world. Russian foreign aid has increased 300 percent since 2010, while U.S. foreign aid has been a target of the White House’s proposed budget cuts before being restored in Congress.
China has been even more ambitious, building infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, airports, stadiums and power plants throughout Africa and Latin America. Its tactics are the same in Slovenia, where Cerar said China offers to build infrastructure quickly with cheap money that leaves the country in debt but is too alluring to turn down.
Cerar predicts many countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe will gravitate to Beijing and Moscow politically as well as economically.
“If Russian or Chinese interests prevail, we will lose the region,” said Cerar, whose Modern Center Party is considered moderate. “The United States could be much more present.”
Some countries in Europe, particularly those that have experienced a significant influx of refugees fleeing Syria, have seen a rise in nationalist and right-wing parties with anti-immigrant agendas. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a landslide victory in an election dominated by the issue of immigration. In Slovenia’s elections this year, the largest vote-getter was the anti-immigrant Slovenian Democratic Party, whose leader used the Trumpian slogan of “Slovenians First.” A coalition of moderate and left-of-center parties formed to prevent the party from taking power.
Hoping to cement more bilateral ties with the United States, Cerar is seeking to raise Slovenia’s profile in Washington. He met with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the granddaughter of Slovenian immigrants, and said he had discussions with politicians from both parties interested in forming a Slovenian caucus on Capitol Hill. He did not, however, meet with Slovenia’s most famous emigrant, though he spoke with the first lady when she accompanied the president to New York for the U.N. General Assembly.
“We are very proud of Melania, that a Slovenian is first lady,” he said. “We’d like her to bring her husband to Slovenia.”
Cerar has been credited with helping transform Slovenia’s economy from a period of contraction a decade ago to 4 percent growth, one of the highest in the European Union. He said the government in Ljubljana recognizes it needs to spend more on defense, which now is only halfway to the target of 2 percent of gross domestic product that NATO has set for its member states — and that Trump has demanded they meet.
But he said he is concerned about the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and its opposition to the Global Compact on Migration and to the climate-change policies of the Paris accord.
“It is so important for the United States to cooperate with the rest of the world in such areas as preventing illegal immigration, human trafficking and violation of human rights of all kinds,” he said. “If the United States is on board, we can be really successful.”