Mitt Romney’s Visit to Poland

The presumptive GOP presidential nominee seeks to contrast his foreign policy with Obama’s.

By Paweł Piotr Styrna l August 5, 2012


Mitt Romney at the Tomb of the Uknown Soldiers in Warsaw (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

 

On July 30 – 31, former Massachusetts governor and presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, visited Poland. This was the final, third leg of his tour, and, followed Romney’s visits to Britain and Israel. The GOP front-runner’s choice of countries is a clear political statement by itself. London, Jerusalem, and Warsaw were important American allies, particularly during the presidency of George W. Bush. However, the trio has been sidelined during Obama’s watch in favor of placating “Old Europe” (Brussels, Berlin, and Paris), the Arab world, and post-Soviet Russia, respectively. Mitt Romney has now signaled his intention to strengthen ties with strong U.S. allies, which Obama has taken for granted, and to depart from the latter’s naïve foreign policy of appeasing foes and snubbing friends.

Romney’s first stop in Poland was the historic Baltic port city of Gdańsk, known to German speakers as Danzig. The city had originally formed a part of the Medieval Polish state until it was conquered by the ethnically German Teutonic Knights, who massacred the city’s original Slavic inhabitants (thereby facilitating the city’s demographic Germanization) and held it from the early fourteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries. Afterwards, the Kingdom of Poland regained Gdańsk but lost it to Prussia during the partitions of the Commonwealth in 1793. After Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the Entente leaders at Versailles decided to turn it into a free city. The Germans chafed at the alleged injustice while the Poles were embittered at being deprived of the port at the mouth of Poland’s major river artery, the Vistula. Hence, having no other sea port at its disposal, Warsaw simply constructed one from scratch and the small fishing village of Gdynia was turned into a modern port city on the Polish side of the border from Gdańsk. Of course, Poland enjoyed some rights in the Free City, including the control of a military transit depot on Westerplatte Peninsula. It was here that Hitler’s Germans struck first as they unleashed the Second World War on September 1, 1939. Hopelessly cut off, the depot nevertheless managed to resist the Germans against overwhelming odds for an entire week. Governor Romney, who emphasized his appreciation for Poland’s historic commitment to the struggle for liberty, paid his respects at the monument to the defenders of Westerplatte.

Gdańsk is perhaps most famous for resisting the other totalitarian occupiers: the communists. In December 1970, the city’s workers rose against the regime. The communists – the self-described defenders of the “proletariat” – brought in troops and did not hesitate to fire deadly shots at the workers to crush the rebellion. In mid-August 1980, the shipyard workers in Gdańsk initiated an anti-regime wave of strikes that rapidly engulfed the entire country. This was the birth of the world-renowned “Solidarity” movement, a major factor facilitating the eventual implosion of the Soviet system. Thus, quite appropriately, Romney visited the Gdańsk Shipyard (once again renamed the “Lenin” Shipyard by the liberal post-communist Civic Platform municipal government of the city, allegedly for reasons of rendering the history of “Solidarity” more accessible to the young generation) and the neighboring monument to the workers killed by the communist regime in December 1970.

Romney’s choice to meet with former President and “Solidarity” leader, Lech Wałęsa, who had invited him to Poland, was more controversial, however. According to the mainstream narrative, Wałęsa is a symbol of the heroic freedom fighter in the struggle against communism. Polish historians have, however, discovered substantial archival evidence that Wałęsa collaborated with the communist secret police in 1970 – 1976 as a paid informer, which he angrily denies. In addition, the former president helped topple the anti-communist government of Jan Olszewski – which sought to publicize the names of secret police assets in the Polish state apparatus at the time – in 1992. Since then, Wałęsa has also combated conservatives and anti-communists in Poland while cozying up to former communists. In fact, in May he ventured so far as to state that he would not hesitate to “beat with batons” the “Solidarity” protestors demonstrating against the Civic Platform government’s raising of the retirement age. As a result, he has lost much of his credibility. In this regard, the Romney campaign failed to do its “homework.” Wałęsa’s endorsement may prove to hurt the GOP front-runner, unless he chooses to learn from the situation.

The labor union Wałęsa once headed refused to endorse Romney, however.  The current “Solidarity” leadership claimed that the co-founder of Bain Capital was hostile towards unionized labor. While Romney may have certainly liked a “Solidarity” endorsement, the union has become a shadow of its former self, a once great social and national movement of 10 million members (during the early 1980s), its membership has dwindled to 700,000 and it has succumbed to the special interest politics characteristic of many large unions.

At all events, personal politics seem to have played an important role in Wałęsa’s endorsement of Romney and “Solidarity’s” refusal to support him.  Wałęsa was always a very ambitious man. During Obama’s visit to Poland last year, the former Polish president snubbed the American incumbent, and was, later, in turn, snubbed by Obama’s administration. The “Solidarity” leadership, in turn, is in conflict with its former leader, which was exacerbated by Wałęsa’s May remark about “beating” union protesters with “batons.”

Upon leaving Gdańsk, Romney headed for Warsaw, where he met with main Polish government figures: President Bronisław Komorowski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski. The presumptive Republican nominee met neither with representatives of the main opposition party – the conservative and anti-communist Law and Justice Party – nor did he accept the party’s invitation to pay his respects at the tomb of the late President Lech Kaczyński in the city of Kraków. Some Poles came to see this as a similar slight to Obama’s preference to play golf rather than attend Kaczyński funeral following the suspicious 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia. Nor did Romney, for that matter, say anything on the subject of Smolensk. The fact that approximately 80 percent of Polish-Americans voting in Poland’s elections in the U.S. cast their ballot for the party of the Kaczyńskis ought to give pause to the Romney campaign.

While in the Polish capital, Romney paid his respects at the monuments to the fighters of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (the 68th anniversary of which was marked on August 1), the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He also delivered a speech at the Library of Warsaw University. He praised Poland’s economic growth in a sea of stagnation and the country’s transformation from central planning to freer markets. Romney also stressed friendly historic ties between the United States and Poland (mentioning Pulaski, but, interestingly, not Kościuszko) and the two nation’s common devotion to freedom and the struggle for it: from the American War of Independence through the Second World War to the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Romney continued, to the east of Poland an oppressive dictatorship reigns in Lukashenka’s Belarus while Putin’s Russia has done much to curtail freedom and civil rights at home. He further classified Poland’s two eastern neighbors as in the same league as Syria under Bashar al-Assad and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. Yet, this time, the man who once referred to Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe” kept away from the realm of geopolitics and merely limited himself to comments on “faltering progress” within Russia.

In spite of Romney’s warm words for Poland, quite a few Poles feel rather tepid, if not cool, toward his visit. Diplomat and current Law and Justice deputy, Witold Waszczykowski commented thus: “I wished to hear the outline of some kind of a vision for the world, for international relations, for trans-Atlantic or U.S.-European relations, for relations with our Central European region, with Russia.” Waszczykowski also described Romney’s strategy as “eschewing specifics to picking his words to avoid any utterances or promises which might commit him.” Journalist Andrzej Talaga was even more blunt in the respected conservative daily, Rzeczpospolita [The Republic]: “Romney’s rhetoric sounds beautiful (…) but, this time, we must have specifics on the table. This time America has to pay. We need the missile shield, the constant deployment of a significant number of American troops on our soil, the transfer of the latest military technology, and the rejection of the unwritten deal with Russia that, after joining NATO, no important alliance installations or military groupings would be stationed on our territory. (…) We also need the support and guarantees of the administration in Washington for American firms investing in our shale gas. If we are the defenders of liberty, as Romney said in Warsaw, and if bad guys reside to the east of us, then these expectations are not baseless. Let us tell Mitt: We want friendship, but first let us test the sincerity of your intentions.”

This attitude, coming from pro-American conservative circles in Poland, is indicative of a trend. During and following the Second World War the Poles paid a very high price in their struggle against the Nazis, but were nevertheless betrayed by the West at Yalta. Similarly, in more recent times, Poland supported the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan politically and militarily, but were eventually abandoned by Barack Obama. Thus, the enthusiastic, Reagan-inspired pro-Americanism of the 1980s has somewhat evaporated and yielded to cynicism and fear of further betrayals. Even so, Polish society is still largely sympathetic towards the United States. The kind of bitter anti-Americanism common in Western Europe or Russia is rare. Thus, Romney has a chance to increase his support among both Poles and Polish-Americans, but he will have to demonstrate he is serious.


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.