Obama’s Visit to Poland

By Pawel Piotr Styrna l June 17, 2011

President Obama with Polish President Bonislaw Komorowski at welcoming ceremony (Official White House Photo/Lawrence Jackson) and holding a press conference with Prime Minister Donald Tusk (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

 

Obama’s Trip to Poland Continues to Appease Moscow

President Barack Obama’s 24-hour visit to the Central European nation of Poland on May 27-28 was part of a four-country tour of Europe that commenced in Ireland and the United Kingdom, followed by France, where he attended the G8 summit at Deauville.

Upon landing in Warsaw, the last stop on his six day itinerary, Obama paid homage to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where he met briefly with Polish veterans, at the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters’ Monument. There, he spoke to the representatives of Poland’s Jewish community. The visit also included bilateral talks with Polish leaders on relations between the two states, energy security issues, and democratization in both neighboring Belarus and the distant Middle East. Further, Obama attended a dinner summit with twenty-one leaders of Central European countries, including President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic.

On his way home, the President honored the victims of the Soviet-perpetrated Katyń Forest Massacre of 1940 – which claimed the lives of 26,000 Polish officers and other members of the nation’s elite – as well as the victims of the 2010 Smolensk air crash, at the Polish Military’s Field Cathedral. There he met with the families of the air disaster victims, including the daughter of the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński, Marta Kaczyńska-Dubaniecka, and Kaczyński’s twin brother, Jarosław. The latter handed the President a memorandum on the plane crash that occurred in the Russian Federation over Smolensk but Obama failed to commit to any efforts to “internationalize” the investigation conducted solely by Russian authorities under the personal supervision of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. To date, the Russians have refused to return the plane’s black boxes to Poland, the rightful owners.

Throughout the visit, pleasantries were exchanged, warm gestures made, and promises offered. Although these are a common feature of all diplomatic tours, it is worthwhile to delve into the larger significance of Obama’s European visit. Was it a watershed, signaling change in his foreign policy, or merely an exercise in public relations, both international and domestic?

The diplomatic tour is generally interpreted as an effort to shore up alliances in Europe. In Poland’s case, the visit is commonly seen as an attempt to reinvigorate U.S.-Polish relations. These have deteriorated since the rise to power in Poland of the post-communist liberal Civic Platform party in 2007 and, particularly, Barack Obama’s assumption of the U.S. presidency in January 2009.

Quite a few Poles were dismayed and annoyed by what they viewed as Obama’s abandonment of Poland and other Central and Eastern European (CEE) post-Soviet countries in favor of his administration’s new “reset” policy of seeking closer ties with Russia. The Obama administration’s decision to scrap George W. Bush’s missile defense shield on September 17, 2009 – the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland to cement the Nazi-Bolshevik alliance in 1939 – appeared particularly offensive and insensitive. Moreover, Obama’s absence at the funeral of the late Polish presidential couple killed in the Smolensk air crash also raised additional questions regarding the Obama administration’s commitment to Poland.

According to historian Marek Jan Chodakiewicz from the Institute of World Politics, and other observers, the Obama administration may have grown weary with the failure to successfully cultivate the countries of what former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld referred to as “Old Europe” (especially France and Germany). Furthermore, the new “reset” policy with Russia appears to have yielded far less results for America than the Obama administration had anticipated. Thus, Obama might be reverting to Bush’s policy of a special relationship with the UK and close ties with the states of the “New Europe,” including Poland.

Historian Mieczysław Ryba notes the significance of Obama having bypassed Germany during his European visit. Throughout his presidency, Obama has courted Brussels and the Berlin-Moscow axis. In spite of this, Germany refused to support Obama’s intervention in Libya. According to Ryba, who stated in a May 31 interview published in Nasz Dziennik, “Barack Obama’s visit to Poland may have been merely a temporary measure to ‘frighten’ Germany that, in the case of continuing ‘disloyalty,’ the Americans can mobilize centrifugal forces in Central Europe.” In his view, the scrapping of the missile shield on September 17, 2009 was indeed symbolic yet at the same time a very clear signal intended not only for Russia, but also for Germany, that the United States tacitly accepts a Russo-German “kondominium” (or condominium under international law) in Central and Eastern Europe, i.e. the Intermarium. Geopolitically, kondominium signifies shared influence. An implicit element of the Russo-German “strategic partnership” is an unspoken agreement on the division of spheres of influence in the Intermarium lands between Germany and Russia, where Russia appears to have a decisive influence in such countries as Ukraine or Belarus, whereas, Germany treats states such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary as its spheres of influence. In this Russo-German kondominium, the two powers appear to have agreed to share their influence over Poland on an equal basis.

From the perspective of Witold Waszczykowski – former Deputy Foreign Minister, a previous deputy director of the country’s National Security Bureau and one of Poland’s representatives during the Missile Shield negotiations – the visit is less a sign of alterations in the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and more a reflection of a lack of any clear and coherent grand strategy.

In addition, quite a few analysts have pointed out that one motive of Obama’s visit to Europe may consist of an attempt to reverse the President’s diminishing popularity at home by shoring up his appeal to Irish, Polish and Jewish voters, given the numerous White House and mainstream media photos taken with these important and traditionally Democrat Party constituency groups while on this recent tour of Europe.

However, Obama’s sojourn in Poland appears to have yielded very modest foreign policy results. The President offered declarations regarding cooperation in nuclear energy and shale gas exploration in Poland, whose deposits are apparently some of the largest in Europe. He spoke of a U.S.-Polish economic summit to take place in Warsaw during the upcoming fall and an innovation fund, which would help the Poles obtain new technologies. Further, Obama discussed a planned new missile defense system, the mobile European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), employing SM-3 interceptors. Yet, this version is not to be deployed until 2018. Simultaneously, Obama urged that the missile shield require Russian cooperation, a clear sign the president’s “reset” policy is purely intended to appease Moscow.

An agreement – signed on June 13th between the U.S. Department of Defense and Poland’s Ministry of National Defense – entailing the permanent stationing in Poland of a small maintenance crew of technicians (as of late 2012), and the rotating presence of “unarmed” American F-16 fighters and C-130 Hercules transport planes (as of early 2013), appear as the only tangible out-year benefits to Poland stemming from Obama’s visit. Moreover, the failure by Washington to dispatch any representative to Poland (the agreement was signed by the U.S. Ambassador Lee Feinstein) has been interpreted by some Poles as a demonstration of its low-priority treatment by the Obama administration. Although Moscow may oppose any U.S. or NATO military presence in Poland, grounds exist to fear that the Kremlin will view the deal in similar terms.

The above suggests that it is premature to declare that Obama has definitely forsaken his “reset” policy seeking closer relations with Russia or his related policy vis-à-vis Germany, in particular, and “Old Europe,” in general. He may be attempting to balance older, Bush-era allies against his new partners in a delicate, Bismarckian-like scheme, or, most likely, simply “prodding” the Germans and the Russians. After all, Russia still appears as a valuable partner from the perspective of Obama’s administration, which finds itself embroiled in North Africa and the Middle East, while facing grave economic consequences at home. Of course, this point of view assumes as a given Moscow’s interest in U.S.-Russia cooperation.

A vigorous U.S.-Polish strategic partnership, on the other hand, offers much greater potential. Yet, the current leaders in both Washington and Warsaw have exhibited a deficiency of political will to forge stronger ties. Both the administration of Barack Obama and the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk seem to place greater stock in cultivating Berlin and Moscow. Poland’s departure from the pro-American path taken by the late President Kaczyński and his Law and Justice-led cabinet (2005-2007), under the rule of the Civil Platform-dominated government, might serve as a warning against taking Polish pro-Americanism for granted. Half-measures or an outright lack of interest on America’s part provide ammunition to the opponents of the country’s pro-U.S. policy, positions creating the impression that Poland has no choice but to accommodate Berlin and Moscow.

Concurrently, the Poles must strive to transform themselves into a more attractive partner. Warsaw may accomplish this by resuming the policy of rallying around itself the CEE nations of Central and Eastern Europe located between the Black, Baltic, and Adriatic Seas and the Caucasus Mountains.


Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.