Poland's risky 'America first' policy Polish President Andrzej Duda puts his arm around U.S. President Donald Trump during a news conference at the White House. The Polish leader played to Trumpâs narcissism during his visit to Washington | Pool photo by Tasos Katopodis/AFP via Getty Images
Polish President Andrzej Duda puts his arm around U.S. President Donald Trump during a news conference at the White House. The Polish leader played to Trumpâs narcissism during his visit to Washington | Pool photo by Tasos Katopodis/AFP via Getty Images
WARSAW â" Poland has a new foreign policy: âAmerica first.â
The ruling nationalists in Warsaw are ga mbling on personal chemistry and political affinity with U.S. President Donald Trump to ensure their security from a revisionist Russia even as they isolate themselves from the rest of the European Union.
Putting so many eggs in the American basket is a risky strategy, not just because of Trumpâs unpredictability and uncertain duration in power, but also because Warsaw is about to lose its best friend in the EU â" the U.K. â" and has no obvious alternative ally in Brussels.
Poles, who have enjoyed 25 years of spectacular economic growth and rising living standards since the fall of communism, may pay a high price financially and politically for their governmentâs escalating defiance of EU norms on judicial independence, without gaining any greater protection against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In his quest to make Poland great again, JarosÅaw KaczyÅski, who chairs the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party but holds no state office, has simultaneo usly offended his countryâs biggest economic partner, Germany, and clashed with neighbors Ukraine and Lithuania by playing âmemory politicsâ â" raking over historical grievances.
European diplomats worry that hard-liners in the White House are using a willing Warsaw as a wedge to divide and weaken the EU.
He climbed down fast after he outraged the United States and Israel with a law that threatened up to three years in prison for anyone suggesting that the Polish nation played a role in the Nazi extermination of Jews in Poland. But he has refused to concede to the EU over a purge of senior judges and legislation subjugating the justice system to government control.
PiS politicians have also demanded that Germany pay reparations for the Nazi devastation of Poland during World War II and encouraged the U.S. to impose sanctions on companies involved in the NordStream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.
European diplomats worry that hard-liners in the White House are using a willing Warsaw as a wedge to divide and weaken the EU, with which Trump has clashed over trade, climate change, defense spending, Middle East diplomacy and global governance.
The president singled out Poland for praise â" in explicit contrast to Germany â" in his annual address to the United Nations. âIn Poland, a great people are standing up for their independence, their security and their sovereignty,â Trump declared, warning that âGermany will become totally dependent on Russian energy if it does not immediately change course.â
Leader of Polandâs ruling Law and Justice Party Jaroslaw KaczyÅski | Marcin Obara/EPA
KaczyÅski claims to have raised Poland from its knees in dealings with Berlin and Brussels. But his frequent EU-bashing in the name of patriotism and Christian values could tip the Continentâs most pro-European electorate toward contemplating a âPolexitâ once the current massive inflow of EU development funds dwindles.
His alliance with fellow Euroskeptic Viktor OrbÃ¡n, Hungaryâs prime minister, may shield Poland from a unanimous EU decision to sanction it for violating fundamental rights. But it wonât save either country from a sharp cut in EU funds in the long-term budget if they continue to alienate the blocâs Western paymasters, notably by refusing to take in a share of refugees arriving in Europe.
âI believe the situation in Poland really resembles in every aspect the situation in the U.K. before th e [2016 Brexit] referendum,â European Commissioner ElÅ¼bieta BieÅkowska, a former deputy prime minister from the opposition Civic Platform party, told a conference of the Polish employersâ confederation Lewiatan. âEighty percent of information in the public media about the EU is wrong and negative.â
Boots on the ground
Warsawâs strategy of playing America off against Europe was highlighted when President Andzej Duda, on a visit to the White House last month, offered more than $2 billion to secure a permanent U.S. armored base on Polish soil. That would be on top of the rotating military presence that NATO allies, including the U.S. and Germany, have deployed to reassure Poland and the Baltic states following Moscowâs seizure of Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Playing to the U.S. commander-in-chiefâs narcissism, Duda declared: âI hope we will build Fort Trump in Poland together, Mr. President.â
A visibly flattered Trump responded that he is âvery seriously consideringâ the base idea, which plays well with the estimated 9 million strong Polish-American community in the run-up to mid-term elections.
However, critics in the Pentagon and the U.S. military say such a fixed presence would tie down scarce combat units to deter an improbable Russian invasion, reduce available forces for missions around the world, divide NATO and potentially provoke an undesired Kremlin response.
U.S. President Donald Trump gives a speech in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument on Krasinski Squar | Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images
The U.S. already has more than 3,000 military personnel in Poland on a variety of bilateral and NATO duties. But KaczyÅski, obsessed by how Britain and France abandoned Poland to the Nazi German invasion and partition with Russia in 1939 , sees permanent U.S. âboots on the groundâ as the only dependable insurance against Russian aggression.
To be fair, there is a bipartisan consensus in Warsaw to seek an American base. It was the previous, pro-European center-right government of Donald Tusk, now president of the European Council, that first put the request to Washington a decade ago. But Tusk kept Poland in the EU mainstream, whereas KaczyÅski has driven it to the sidelines with purges of the judiciary, public broadcasters, the civil service and the armed forces.
Poland has ceased to be the model of a successful transition to liberal market democracy that America and Europe could hold up as an example for other Central and Eastern European countries. It risks being relegated to the second division in a multispeed EU spearheaded by the eurozone.
If the Democrats win the midterms, âFort Trumpâ may fade away. But if Washington does move forward with the idea next year, some at NATO headqua rters fear it could shatter the allied consensus in support of the current Enhanced Forward Presence on the allianceâs eastern flank.
In any scenario, Europeâs future stability and cohesion hinges on the struggle for Poland.
Germany, France and Southern Europeans worry that a permanent U.S. armored base would be unnecessarily provocative and breach the spirit of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. The charter stipulates that âin the current and foreseeable security environmentâ NATO did not envisage the âadditional permanent stationing of substantial combat forcesâ in former Warsaw Pact countries that joined the alliance.
U.S. and Polish officials say Moscow made the agreement moot with its military intervention in Ukraine and its renunciation of the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe. They also contend that a brigade of some 3,000 American soldiers could not conceivably constitute an offensive combat force, compare d to the 350,000 troops in Russiaâs Western Military District.
But U.S. military experts say there are better ways to strengthen the defense of NATOâs eastern frontier than tying down a brigade in Poland. The focus should instead be on deploying more enablers such as planning staff and stored equipment, and investing in dual-use road, rail, pipeline and airstrip infrastructure to facilitate rapid reinforcement in a crisis.
A group of former Polish ambassadors warned the government in an open letter in July against the danger of âstrategic isolation,â saying that national security depends on two pillars â" the U.S. and Europe â" and pointing to Trumpâs ambiguity toward NATO and Russia.
âTriumph of illiberalismâ
A study published this week by the Res Publica Foundation and the German Marshall Fund of the United States imagines five possible scenarios for Central Europe to 2025. The most alarming involves a âtriumph of illiberalismâ spr eading from Hungary and Poland across the Continent and leading to a gradual unraveling of the EU or a collapse of NATO, with the U.S. withdrawing from European security after disputes over trade and defense spending, prompting EU countries to pursue divergent national survival strategies with outside powers.
The more optimistic posits a revival of European unity in the face of fresh Russian military action in Ukraine, with Western European military and economic assistance pouring into Central Europe, sweeping away the current skepticism, or a Central European youth movement against corruption, illiberalism and official Euroskepticism beginning in Poland and spreading around the region, replacing a discredited political class with a new generation of pro-integration leaders.
In any scenario, Europeâs future stability and cohesion hinges on the struggle for Poland.
Instead of trying to use Washington or its Central European peers to counter German and French in fluence, Warsaw would do better to hedge its strategic bets and repair badly damaged ties with the EU, Berlin and Paris.
Paul Taylor, contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the Europe At Large column.
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