President Andrzej Duda recently had his second visit to the White House in less than a year, establishing Poland as the closest European partner of President Trump. Indeed, the Eastern European nation has found favor in Washington before. Whenever it grows frustrated with French and German disdain for attempts by the United States to deal with a tyrannical Middle Eastern regime that might be developing weapons of mass destruction, the White House has always been able to find an eager partner in Poland.
Such was the case in 2003, when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed France and Germany as “Old Europe” for their opposition to the war in Iraq. Instead, it was the new members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, foremost among them Poland, that fought alongside the United States. Such is the case today. The decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was met with scorn in Western European capitals. But Poland supported the American agenda by convening the Middle East Peace and Security Conference in Warsaw. When Trump visited, Poland went to great lengths to ensure that he saw nothing but cheering fans.
In both cases, Poland hoped, if not expected, that its support would earn it a spot among the upper echelons of American partners. Warsaw seeks deeper security ties as a deterrent against Russia, but it also sees itself as a regional power and wants the United States to recognize that role. The overtures have paid off. In 2007, the Bush administration drew up plans to build a missile defense complex in Poland. The Polish people expected to join the visa waiver program in exchange for their loyalty. Trump recently agreed to send an additional deployment of 1,000 troops to Poland. Given that Trump has been reluctant to treat Russia as an adversary or to send troops abroad, it is remarkable that Poland has convinced him to do both.
A decade ago, however, Poland ended up disillusioned. President Obama canceled the original missile defense plan, painfully announcing the decision on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in World War II. The visa waivers never actually materialized. By 2014, the Polish foreign minister secretly but unsurprisingly called the relationship with Washington worthless. Obama showed littles interest in Europe, with his priorities elsewhere, from repairing American standing in the Muslim world to resetting relations with Russia and pivoting to Asia. But Warsaw also failed to transform its goodwill with President Bush into an enduring partnership. Its approach was too deferential and dependent.
Poland was eager to assist the United States. But it did not match this willingness with a vision of shared objectives or a compelling pitch for what unique role it could play in advancing them. Without a compelling account of what Poland had to offer, when the need of Washington for a coalition partner in 2003 ran its course with the change in administration in 2009, so did its partnership with Warsaw. The challenge for Poland now is avoiding a similar fate. Duda envisions an enduring American military presence. But before Warsaw can deepen its ties with the United States, it must first consolidate them. This requires making a strategic case for what Poland offers that can withstand any changes in policy and administration.
Indeed, Poland is already part of the way there. It is not just counting on Washington for deterrence against Russia, but also developing its own military capabilities and a strategy for strengthening the region against influence from Moscrow. The Three Seas Initiative seeks to link Central European countries through infrastructure that will allow increased trade and energy independence. In this regard, the agreements between the United States and Poland on natural gas and civil nuclear cooperation are perhaps more strategically significant than more military deployments.
Still, Warsaw needs to do more to link the positive role it can play in the region to broader strategic objectives shared with the United States. It can find inspiration from the intimation of Rumsfeld that Poland and its neighbors represent the “New Europe.” The newness in Poland results from the decades it languished behind the Iron Curtain. Its struggle for, and deep love of, freedom positions itself to serve as a leading innovator in the growing regional and global political competition between liberal democracy and autocratic aggression. A history of fighting totalitarianism does not suffice, however, for Poland to inhabit this key role. A continued commitment to universal political and civil freedoms is also necessary.
But Poland is also undeniably European. Its own strategic value comes not through standing apart from the continent, but from being an integral part of it. Especially at a time when Washington finds itself increasingly at odds with the European policy establishment, Poland can remind both sides of the Atlantic of the value of political, and not just security, cooperation. If Poland can articulate a compelling and comprehensive strategic vision for its partnership with Washington, the “New Europe” might then rise anew.