At a time when both economic uncertainty and security concerns along NATO’s periphery are driving the Transatlantic relationship, Poland’s dynamic economy and growing geopolitical weight make it an increasingly important European ally for the United States. So it matters that during the past four years America has lost public support in Poland despite close state-to-state cooperation, notably including the bonds forged by the Polish military’s prominent role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and despite a long history of close Polish affinity toward the United States stretching from the American Founding all the way to and beyond the end of the Cold War.
Yes, it’s true: Despite Poland’s U.S. connection via a large ethnic diaspora, despite America’s support for the Solidarity movement and the country’s struggle for freedom and independence from Soviet domination, despite the reverence here for President Reagan—his monument was recently unveiled across from the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw—and despite lingering gratitude over U.S. support for Poland’s NATO membership in 1999, the Polish public now views Germany more favorably than the United States. Poland now ranks thirteen points below the European average when it comes to public confidence in NATO. (So says the latest German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trend polls). Transatlantic Trends also show public approval in Poland for President Obama’s handling of international affairs tumbling from 65 percent in 2011 to 49 percent in 2012.
Clearly, something has gone wrong if one of the most historically pro-American nations in Europe is having second thoughts about how it views the core of the Transatlantic relationship. But what?
It’s logical to suppose that Poland’s accession to the European Union has made it, more or less by definition, less orientated to the United States. That may be so to some extent, but it cannot account for the dramatic scope of change. Nor can it be explained away by the unmet expectations of commercial gain following Poland’s strong support of U.S. operations in Iraq. Nor the progressive “Europeanization” of Polish elites, now enmeshed ever-deeper in the intricacies of Brussels politics over bailouts, budgets, and regulations. What can account for it in large part is an accumulation of U.S. policy missteps and public relations blunders.
First and most important among these missteps is that on September 17, 2009, after little consultation with Warsaw, President Obama abruptly terminated a Bush-era agreement to install ground-based missile interceptors in Poland. The Administration claimed that it was planning instead to replace those plans with the European Phased Adaptive Approach, a system that would be operationally superior to the Bush-era program. But the decision delayed an operational MD site in Poland from 2013 to at least 2018, and given the political context Poles lack confidence that it will ever happen at all. They are keenly aware that EPAA is contingent on how the threat posed by Iran’s WMD and missile ambitions evolves. Even more important, the Obama Administration’s decision came in the context of its “reset” with Russia, raising speculations that a still-evolving quid pro quo over its head will ultimately work through to negate the commitment. Those speculations were mightily reinforced when in March 2012 the press captured President Obama’s off-mike comment to President Medvedev conveying that, after his re-election, he would be able to offer Moscow “added flexibility” on missile defense.
As to public relations blunders, the formal announcement of the policy change on missile defense came on September 17—the 70th anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland. That created a fiasco of the first order that is remembered to this day.
In due course, the Obama Administration did push through NATO contingency plans for the defense of the region, and established a new rotational U.S. air detachment at Lask in central Poland. Both were significant developments for the security of Central Europe and the Baltics, and, quite remarkably, something that had never been seriously undertaken during all the years since NATO expansion. Nevertheless, the public impact of this achievement has been offset by the Administration’s announcement of the “Asia pivot” and, more significantly, by the U.S. force drawdown in Europe. That drawdown had gone almost unnoticed in the U.S. press, but not in Europe, and especially in Central Europe. Perceptive Poles wonder how the United States plans to operate NATO, including the alliance’s now key role in out-of-area contingencies on Europe’s periphery, if it is not physically present to symbolize its stake. The “Asia pivot” and the drawdown of forces are often read in Central Europe as the United States downgrading its transatlantic security relationship.
Beyond the perception in Poland that America is moving away from Europe are a host of smaller but hardly trivial issues. There is, still, the festering visa waiver issue; Poles still need visas to travel to the United States, and they think that is most unfair after what Poland has done for the United States at some expense to its own European relationships—like sticking with Washington in early 2003 over Iraq despite French and German objections. And there is the lingering memory of several U.S. public relations missteps over the past four years, including the 2010 rotational deployment of a U.S. Patriot battery to Poland, which was sent unarmed and was widely interpreted as another concession to Russia at Poland’s expense, even as Russia was reported to be installing missiles in Kaliningrad. The President deepened the emerging sense of public grievance when he misspoke in May 2012 about “Polish death camps” during a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony honoring the Polish World War II hero, Jan Karski. Although no one in Poland believes this to have been an intentional slight, the bad aftertaste has remained.
Declining Polish public support for the United States is about more than mismanaged public relations. The key problem with the Obama policy toward Poland during the first term has been its inability to take fully into account the continued importance of Poland’s naturally vivid historical memory. National security remains the foundational question for Poland because a mere two decades ago—barely a blink in the Polish perception of historical time—the country was Moscow’s satellite. It will take at least another generation of growth and democratic consolidation before its historical security concerns about Russia recede from public view.
More than that: In addition to Poland’s deepening relations within Europe, it will take a strong security bond with the United States to make constructive Polish-Russian dialogue possible. And after the historic Franco-German and Polish-German reconciliations we have witnessed in the past half century, this third reconciliation constitutes the last piece of the great historical-psychological construction that will truly ensure a Europe whole, free and at peace. To not grasp this, and worse, to insist today that Poland’s geostrategic traumas are behind it, as U.S. inattention and PR body language during the Obama Administration implicitly have done, only deepens the sense among the Polish public that Washington simply does not understand the realities of the region.
The perceived sense of U.S. detachment may well be the “new normal” in U.S.-Polish relations, but it has not impaired the quality of the bilateral relationship. Polish leaders still view the United States as an essential ally, as a place where at least every other family has a kin connection, and as a place where the traditional commitment to freedom and democracy makes Americans and Poles natural allies. But the policy gyrations and public relations blunders of the past four years have reduced trust and have given the relationship an increasingly transactional quality—not the best foundation for allied solidarity and close security cooperation going forward.
The second Obama Administration would therefore be wise to heed the lessons of the past four years, and consider carefully how to restore the level of confidence that only a few years ago marked the U.S.-Polish bilateral relationship. This is essential in order to strengthen U.S. military cooperation with an important ally. Poland is one of the few countries in Europe that remains a serious military player, having rotated over 30,000 troops through Iraq and Afghanistan and having provided one of the most proficient special operators in NATO. The right time to rethink its approach is now, after the U.S. election, while Poland prepares to modernize its land forces, its air force and its air and missile defense systems. With a vibrant economy and a guaranteed 1.95 percent of GDP reserved for defense, Poland is a European ally with real potential to become a security provider for the region and a significant contributor beyond, especially as the country’s influence within Europe continues to grow. It would be ill advised to ignore this potential.
So what, specifically, to do? Given a few strong U.S. policy choices, the relationship and its aura of public trust can rebound quickly. One of those choices should be a focus on the visa issue—to finally press Congress to remove this unnecessary irritant. In this day and age, the Polish traveler in the United States is hardly an especially high security risk.
There are also venues to strengthen further military-to-military cooperation, including closer cooperation between Polish and U.S. defense industries, especially as Poland moves forward to modernize its air and missile defense.
Shale gas exploration, too, where Poland has led in Europe, should be leveraged to bring U.S. and Polish commercial interests closely together.
And on security policy proper, Washington needs to make clear that it understands its relations with Poland in strategic terms, as a strategic alliance with the increasingly important leader of Central Europe. To convey that, we must learn to talk about the relationship within the historical and strategic context that Poles appreciate and still care about. There are reasons, not all of them unfortunate, why the United States is the only place on earth where the quip “that’s history” means that’s irrelevant. We have to remember that Poles don’t savvy that idiom, and that in this regard Americans are, yes, the exceptional party.