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Poland and Biden's European Diplomacy

President Biden's European diplomacy is underestimated in Poland, and the Polish government is ill-equipped to affect a meaningful engagement with the current US administration.

President Joe Biden's European trip in June was more significant than it might have appeared. Its most important goal was the reintegration of the West based on security guarantees, democratic values, deepening ties with allies and the easing of tensions and distrust in mutual relations after the dramatic decline in European confidence in the US during the presidency of Donald Trump.

An End to Tolerance for Autocrats

At the G7 summit, bringing together the major economies of the Global North, the most important development problems after the coronavirus pandemic, as well as climate challenges and the threat from China, were discussed. The novelty was the US president’s initiative to create the infrastructure project Build Back Better World. With a budget of $40 billion by 2035, it is to be an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. International public–private cooperation will support countries that need funds to expand their infrastructure, while not making them dependent on China.

During the subsequent NATO summit, the president confirmed the US’s unconditional commitments to its allies and the inviolability of the Washington Treaty’s Article 5, resulting in an almost joyful atmosphere of relief. By contrast to the last NATO summit involving Trump in 2019, after which a message with just nine paragraphs appeared, a very detailed, tangible, 79-paragraph document was made public this time.

The Alliance emphasised the threat from Russia. Changes in the functioning of the Alliance were agreed, aimed at strengthening its deterrence, collective defence, and crisis management. Allies reaffirmed their 2014 commitment to spend at least two percent of GDP on defence.

Above all, Biden managed to focus the attention of NATO allies on the Chinese threat. The final communiqué mentions China for the first time in Alliance history, declaring that the country presents ‘a systemic challenge to the rules-based international order and to areas essential to Alliance security’.

The reformulation of NATO as an alliance of democratic states against autocracy is close to the heart of most of the Allies, apart from the current governments of Poland, Hungary and Turkey, which did not speak out on this issue.

Commentators in Poland – especially on the right – focused on Biden's meeting with Putin, warning against another reset in US–Russia relations at the expense of European security, or even a ‘new Yalta’. But this is a superficial assessment. For, as the joint US–EU statement entitled ‘Towards a Renewed Transatlantic Partnership’ put it, the US supports ‘European integration on the basis of common values ​​and goals’.

The Role and Fears of Poland

In this context, Biden's earlier decision to ‘temporarily’ waive some of the sanctions against companies building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the subsequent July deal between Germany and the US on this point, should be seen as an investment by the US in cooperation with Germany – and through Germany with the whole of Europe.

Poland does not like it, especially the provincial right-wing politicians who, blind to global changes, proclaim that Warsaw should play a particularly important partner role with the US as its main ally in Eastern Europe. Yet such an approach is divorced from strategic realities, since Poland – especially under the current government – has nothing to offer in this regard.

An obvious mistake of the US administration was the failure to consult with allied Poland and the Baltic states before taking some of its latest initiatives. Between the various scheduled European meetings in June, Biden only spoke in public for a few minutes to Polish President Andrzej Duda. And the US clearly failed to consult properly with Ukraine before it made its decisions on Nord Stream 2; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is to meet the US president at the end of August, well after many of the critical decisions about his country have already been taken.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the security of Poland and other countries in the region is ensured under NATO guarantees, bilateral treaties, and US agreements with the EU. Furthermore, US interests are subordinated to a global strategic vision – that is, the reinvigoration of transatlantic relations by cementing the strength and unity of the West in confronting Beijing and Moscow.

Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) government, through its policy of violating the rule of law and the human rights of LGBT+ communities, as well as standing by Donald Trump even after Biden's electoral victory last November, has lost the ability to effectively defend Poland's interests in Washington and other capitals.

What is more, the government in Warsaw, apparently convinced that it needs full control over the media to win future elections, has introduced a bill to force the US company Discovery to sell its majority stake in the independent TVN TV station. PiS is so far unconcerned with the warnings coming from the highest levels of US politics that the issue of media freedom (and the interests of the US corporation) will be treated in a principled manner.

The impression is that PiS is not particularly concerned about another source of tension in relations with the US and has decided to wait out the Biden administration, following the example of Orban, who waited out Obama's presidency. But Poland is not Hungary.

The situation has been aggravated by absurd gestures, such as Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau's visit to Beijing in May, with his public expression of understanding for China's ‘legitimate’ interests; the seeking of an alliance with authoritarian Turkey; and efforts to build a common European platform with far-right groups in Western Europe. Poland’s leaders should hardly have been surprised that German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to meet in Berlin with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, or even to conduct a videoconference with him.

Berlin in Washington's Plans

After Biden’s European meetings, it was astonishing to see commentators in Poland maintaining with certainty and barely concealed hostility that the US president had somehow handed over responsibility for the security of Europe to Germany.

In reality, Washington is well aware that, for historical reasons, Germany will refuse to assume a military leadership role. But it also realises that without Germany's involvement, its plans for the reintegration of the West will be unrealistic.

It follows that the US expects Berlin to be active in achieving agreed political and economic goals, as well as security aims, and that it will take the rest of Europe with it. Given its focus on China, the US hopes to obtain some relief by increasing the responsibility of Europeans for stability and security, both in the east and the south of the continent – in the interests of Europe itself.

In this great game of the future, Poland’s PiS government has nothing to offer. Still focused on the public fight against Nord Stream 2, the Polish government appears to continue to believe in strengthening its own position by weakening Germany's influence. Yet everyone else in the region rejects such an approach, since it will only further weaken Poland's position. It is not possible to develop a realistic strategy based on erroneous premises and perceiving reality through the prism of one's own expectations, prejudices and phantasmagoria.

This is not to say that challenges to the transatlantic relationship do not exist. Russian President Vladimir Putin could yet offer to maintain a modicum of neutrality in the looming China–US confrontation in return for some concessions over the security of Europe, mainly regarding the future of Ukraine – although such an outcome looks unlikely at the moment. And then there is the rejected proposal from France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel for a so-called EU ‘dialogue’ with Putin, an initiative on which almost none of the other European governments were consulted.

These potential trends will present a huge diplomatic challenge to any government in Warsaw. But the current Polish government remains especially ill-equipped to deal with them.

This contribution is adapted from the author’s longer analysis which originally appeared in Poland’s Kultura Liberalna magazine.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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