Donald Trump’s election has raised concerns in Warsaw that the USA may be less willing to engage in European security and try and strike a bargain with Russia over the heads of Poland and other post-communist states. But while there are clearly potential risks for Polish security policy, Warsaw is likely to remain one of the Washington’s closest European allies. Mr Trump’s victory also allows Poland’s right-wing ruling party to position itself as being in the vanguard of an anti-elitist and anti-liberal zeitgeist sweeping through the West.
Concerns over US security commitments
All recent Polish governments have pursued a strongly Atlanticist foreign policy with the USA viewed as the most important guarantor of the country’s military security. One of Poland’s main defence policy aims has been to increase the US military presence on NATO’s Eastern flank. Warsaw has also been at the forefront of efforts to develop a common, robust Euro-Atlantic response to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, including the maintenance and extension of sanctions arising from Moscow’s intervention in the Ukrainian conflict.
The current Polish government, led since autumn 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, has, if anything, been an even stronger advocate of building closer ties with Washington than its predecessors.
However, given his transactional approach to politics and international relations, Donald Trump’s election as US President has raised concerns in Warsaw that the incoming American administration may be less willing than its predecessors to engage in European security. During the presidential election campaign, Mr Trump appeared to question Washington’s continued commitment to trans-Atlantic mutual defence implying that the USA would only protect NATO allies who were prepared to pay at least 2% of their GDP on military spending as required under the Alliance’s rules.
In particular, there are concerns in Poland as to whether a Trump administration will honour the July Warsaw NATO summit decision to strengthen the Alliance’s Eastern flank to deter potential Russian aggression by deploying four 1000-strong rotating international battalions, including one in Poland, together with earlier US commitments to locate elements of its anti-missile defence shield on Polish territory.
Indeed, some Polish commentators fear that Mr Trump may try and strike some kind of grand bargain with Mr Putin, about whom the incoming US President has spoken favourably on a number of occasions, that side-lines Poland and the other post-communist states of central and Eastern Europe, and revise Washington’s hitherto strong support for sanctions against Russia.
Building US relations though the EU?
As a consequence, Poland’s main opposition parties – the centrist Civic Platform (PO), which was the main governing party from 2007 until its defeat in last autumn’s election, and the liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping – have argued that the uncertainty created by Mr Trump’s election victory and possibility that the USA might reduce its commitments to Europe have re-inforced their claim that the most effective way for Poland to develop its relations with Washington was through being at the forefront of a stronger and more integrated EU.
The opposition argues that under Law and Justice Poland has become marginalised within the EU and Warsaw’s relations with the major European powers have deteriorated. For example, they say that the government’s decision to end negotiations initiated by its predecessor on the purchase of helicopters from the French firm Airbus, due to its apparent failure to honour a promised offset deal, has led to concerns in Paris (and Berlin) that Poland is trying to sabotage European defence policy.
The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argue the most way effective to represent Poland’s interests within Euro-Atlantic institutions and in its bi-lateral relations with the USA is for the country to be a strong and assertive independent foreign policy actor. Law and Justice came to office arguing that Poland needed be more robust in advancing its national interests and re-calibrate the country’s relationships with the major EU powers.
This also involved Warsaw forming its ‘own stream’ within the EU by, for example, building an alliance with other East-Central European post-communist states to counter-balance the influence of the Franco-German axis. Law and Justice has also rejected as biased (and questioned the legality of) the Commission’s claims that, on the basis of the constitutional tribunal crisis, there was a perceived ‘systemic threat’ to democracy and the rule of law in Poland. The Polish government was, they argue, simply trying to lawfully restore pluralism and balance to a public institution that they say had been colonised by supporters of the previous governing party.
Poland likely to remain a close US ally
At the same time, many supporters of the ruling party appear to be more relaxed about the prospect of a Trump presidency. While they acknowledge that there are clearly potential risks for Polish security policy, it does not necessarily mean a radical change in the main US foreign policy vectors and Poland is, in any case, likely to remain one of Washington’s closest European allies.
They point out that, in contrast to his Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump was the first US presidential candidate for many years to meet with representatives of the US Polish community. Here he stressed his support for a strong alliance between the two countries and praised Poland as one of the few NATO members that spent above the required 2% of its GDP on defence.
Mr Trump also promised to remove travel visa requirements for Poles visiting the USA, a long-standing source of friction between the two countries, although the decision on this actually lies with the US Congress and at one point outgoing President Barack Obama also pledged to solve this problem by the end of his presidency.
It is clearly too early to say to what extent US policy towards Europe will change until Mr Trump make his key appointments and the shape of his new administration becomes clearer. However, there is a broad and deep consensus among all the main foreign and security policy actors in Washington that a strong NATO alliance is in the USA’s strategic interests as the key to holding together the trans-Atlantic relationship. This consensus includes the leadership of the Republican majority in Congress, with whom Mr Trump will have to co-operate in order to secure the passage of his legislative programme.
While Mr Trump will probably try and force European NATO countries to spend more on defence, his administration is very unlikely to roll back earlier commitments to station US troops and locate the missile shield on Polish territory, processes that will already be well underway by the time he is sworn into office next January.
Moreover, while Mr Trump may encourage Warsaw to establish a closer dialogue with Russia, according to some commentators conflicting interests between Washington and Moscow mean that the US is destined to engage in geo-strategic rivalry with Poland’s Eastern neighbour. Whatever positive statements Mr Trump made about Mr Putin during the election campaign, he may feel obliged to change his approach, especially if the new US President senses that the Russian leader is trying to take advantage of any perceived American weakness.
Indeed, some commentators draw attention to the fact that Mr Obama pointedly snubbed Poland on a number of occasions during his presidency, at one point leading to serious doubts about the USA’s reliability as a security ally. This was particularly true during his administration’s first term when Mrs Clinton was US Secretary of State and the security interests of the post-communist countries appeared to be a casualty of Mr Obama’s attempts to ‘re-set’ relations with Russia. This only really started to change following the 2014 Russian intervention in Ukraine when Mr Obama began to take a greater interest in the region and adopted a rather more robust approach towards Moscow
to be continue …
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