What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.
Poland, like other Central European countries, has long perceived the United States as a patron of the international order and guarantor of the fundamental values of the West. Superimposed on that political myth—a myth strongly reinforced during the Cold War—was the image of America as the country that offered the greatest opportunities for personal advancement and economic success. The huge number of Polish-Americans—estimated at more than ten million—consolidated the ÒAmerican mythÓ in the Polish awareness to the point that communist propaganda, despite its best efforts, was never able to engender widespread anti-American sentiment in Poland. Anti-Americanism of other kinds, too, has had its ups and downs in Europe, but none has had a significant effect on Polish public opinion. This was the case during the Cold War and in more recent years, too: As demonstrations against the war in Iraq swept through many European cities, Poles by and large distrusted the mix of anti-Americanism and pacifism that animated them. This cultural and political predisposition continues to inform current Polish-American relations and Polish views of American policies.
In 1989, after the roundtable talks and the free elections that began the collapse of the Soviet system in Europe, Poland defined an independent foreign policy by consciously breaking its satellite orbit around Moscow to once again become part of the West. This meant dissolving the Warsaw Pact and establishing the closest possible ties with the United States and Western Europe. And specifically in its relations with America, the reborn Poland could draw upon its own foundation myth: Solidarity. The policies of three consecutive presidents—Democrat Jimmy Carter (advised by Zbigniew Brzezinski) and Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush—fully supported Solidarity, with the active cooperation of the U.S. Congress. In November 1989 Lech Walesa became only the third foreign national to address a joint session of Congress, which received him enthusiastically.
In succeeding years, the wave of emotion that accompanied Poland’s liberation naturally waned, but the great Western superpower that had initiated the fall of communism came to enjoy a special and privileged relationship. Poland joined the anti-Saddam coalition in the first Gulf War, albeit only to a symbolic extent, sending two warships and medical personnel. The very decision to join the coalition was significant, however, since one of those responsible for making it was General Wojciech Jaruzelski, then-president of Poland but some years earlier the symbol of opposition to Polish freedom. Polish-American cooperation accompanied the restructuring of the Polish economy. The largest foreign debt forgiveness took place at the initiative of the United States and the Polish people saw it as an expression of American support for the transformation taking place in their country.
Poland had to adjust to a starkly new geopolitical situation; all its former neighbors—the USSR, Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic—had disappeared from the political map, to be replaced by seven new neighbors. In this unsettled situation, the Poles sought a new political alliance to guarantee their national security. The principal Polish foreign policy objective was to gain entry into NATO and the European Union. It was NATO, an alliance in which U.S. political and military potential played a leading role, that could best free Poland from its fear of isolation and give it a strong sense of security. Gaining membership was not easy but finally, in 1997, NATO invited Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to begin accession negotiations, and on March 12, 1999, in Independence, Missouri, the documents on the three countries’ entry into NATO were signed. (Poland also joined the European Union, but not until five years later.) Here I cannot resist a personal reflection. It was first at the Capitol in Washington in November 1989, and then at the Truman Presidential Library in Independence in March 1999, that I felt in my bones an historical change in Poland’s political situation. Never will I forget these moments.
These events must be remembered when evaluating Poland’s position on the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq in March 2003. Poland gave political and later military support for the decisions of President George W. Bush. Approximately two hundred Polish soldiers took part in the initial combat operations. At the height of stabilization operations, some three thousand Polish troops served in Iraq, and Poland came to administer one of the stabilization zones. Poland took part in these operations together with other European states, most notably Great Britain. Indeed, most NATO countries, including all the new members, supported U.S. actions.
At the same time, while Poland did not contravene any formal joint position of the European Union on the Iraq conflict (simply because no such joint position on the Iraq conflict was ever developed), Poland’s position did diverge from EU policy—at least that is how Europe’s political elites and European public opinion saw it. One reason for this was the fact that Poland was one of eight countries to sign a letter declaring their attachment to the Transatlantic alliance. The letter, which was an answer to a Franco-German declaration opposing the intervention, irritated some European leaders and led to the infamous remark by French President Jacques Chirac that Òthe countries of Central Europe missed a great opportunity to keep quiet.Ó The content of the letter was not controversial, however, and could well have been signed by any of the 25 EU member-states or candidate countries. That it was finally signed by only eight—including Great Britain, Spain and ItalyÐÐturned it into a symbol of division within the EU.
When he signed that letter, Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller probably did not realize that he was taking part in an initiative that would cause a rift within the European Union. Had he realized it, however, he probably would have signed it anyway, for Poland’s historical experience and its image of America were too compelling to oppose. Poles remember the powerlessness or indifference of international institutions toward the subjugation of weaker nations. The memory of Munich clearly proved that the appeasement of dictators does not safeguard the peace. Poles remember the totalitarian system, too, and for them and others who suffered similarly it was unthinkable that, in a choice between one of the bloodiest dictators of modern times and a democratically elected president of a great Western nation, one could in effect opt for the former.
But above all, Poles have always viewed America with trust and warmth, and the American dream symbolized for them the hope of freedom and prosperity. Support for American policy—regardless of the political orientation of successive administrations—is thus an alliance of choice for Poland—a choice based on its experience of the United States throughout the 20th century. That is why Poland supports strengthening NATO, maintaining and developing the alliance’s military potential and redefining its tasks. It was important for Poland to have the support of NATO in its operations in Iraq—important not only for Poland, but also for NATO.
Poland’s pro-American stance does not, however, credit the idea of a division between a ÒnewÓ and ÒoldÓ Europe. Poland feels its European identity strongly and is aware that its most basic interests tie it to the European Union. That is why the Polish policy cannot be read as taking a position in favor of America and against Europe. While it lent its support to America, Poland—and this is true both of the public and the government—also unequivocally supported a multilateral solution and the internationalization of the Iraq operation.
Europe has not and will not disintegrate so soon after its historical expansion. The tone sets the melody: A diagnosis of Europe as irrevocably divided can, after all, be seen as a special sort of wishful thinking, as itself an act presaging disintegration. When in 2004 the European Union accepted eight countries that had been liberated from communism, it achieved an extraordinary process of European unification, deepening internal integration and minimizing historical divisions. It is to a united Europe that contemporary Poland’s vital political and economic interests are tied.
At the end of 2005, parliamentary and presidential elections in Poland ushered in a new government. This new government announced that its foreign policy would focus on relations with the United States—President Lech Kaczynski’s visit to Washington bore this out. On European issues, it declared a position of Euroskepticism. Expressed equally clearly was continued Polish support for the Iraq war. The present cabinet seems to believe that deepening cooperation with the United States will compensate for the effects of its Euroskeptical policies. So far, however, the United States has sent no signals that this judgment will be vindicated. The Polish president’s visit to the White House proceeded smoothly, but no groundbreaking decisions were made (such as abolishing the visa requirement for Poles travelling to the United States), and no closer personal relationships were formed between the two leaders. The only meaningful political consequence of the visit had to do with influencing Polish public opinion.
Foreign policy may not be the center of attention for most Poles, but it remains an important standard for evaluating a government’s philosophy and effectiveness. And here we are witnessing a disparity between the policies being carried out by the government and the expectations of the citizens. The essentially moral view of the Iraq war has not changed; Poles are no fans of dictatorship and appreciate the American determination to support fundamental Western values. But at the same time, more and more Poles want their soldiers back home. The Iraq war has also undermined the image of America as a competent and effective global superpower. Public discourse in Poland has slowly begun to rethink fundamental geostrategic issues, including the legitimacy and effectiveness of American unilateralism, and the challenges posed by international terrorism. It is also significant that the Euroskepticism of the present government and a significant portion of Poland’s political elite is by no means shared by the people: More than 60 percent of Poles support the European Union, a figure that is only slightly lower in rural areas where the Union aroused the most anxiety prior to accession.
How this divergence of Polish policy and public opinion will resolve itself is a matter of great significance. There is much to indicate that the Polish position will eventually crystallize in a way that will make it possible for the country’s European identity to dovetail with recognition of the special U.S. leadership role. Poland needs a friendly and effective partnership between Europe and America. The United States would be wise to act in such a way as to facilitate that partnership, not just for Poland’s sake, but also for its own.