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How will Trump’s presidency affect Polish politics?

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. 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.

December 2, 2016 - Aleks Szczerbiak - Articles and Commentary


Concerns over US security commitments

All recent Polish governments have pursued a strongly Atlanticist foreign policy with the United States 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, Trump appeared to question Washington’s continued commitment to trans-Atlantic mutual defence implying that the US would only protect NATO allies who were prepared to pay at least 2 per cent 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 Trump may try and strike some kind of grand bargain with Vladimir Putin, about whom the incoming 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 through 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 Trump’s election victory and possibility that the US 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.

Moreover, the Law and Justice government has also become embroiled in a bitter political-legal dispute with the European Commission over the functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that determines the constitutionality of the country’s laws. It now risks a Commission recommendation to the European Council that sanctions be imposed on Poland under Article 7 of the European treaties, in the worst-case scenario suspending the country’s voting rights; although this is extremely unlikely as such a decision requires unanimity and the Hungarian government has already indicated that it will vote against. The opposition has, therefore, called upon the government to both comply with the Commission’s “rule of law” recommendations and re-build the country’s previously close alliance with France and Germany, so that Poland is once again located within European mainstream politics.

The government’s supporters, on the other hand, argue the most effective way to represent Poland’s interests within Euro-Atlantic institutions and in its bi-lateral relations with the US is for the country to be a strong and assertive independent foreign policy actor. Law and Justice came to office arguing that Poland needed to 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, 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 per cent of its GDP on defence. Trump also promised to remove travel visa requirements for Poles visiting the US, 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 Trump makes 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 US’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 Trump will have to co-operate in order to secure the passage of his legislative programme.

While 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 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 Trump made about 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 Obama pointedly snubbed Poland on a number of occasions during his presidency, at one point leading to serious doubts about the US’s reliability as a security ally. This was particularly true during his administration’s first term when Hilary Clinton was US Secretary of State and the security interests of the post-communist countries appeared to be a casualty of Obama’s attempts to re-set relations with Russia. This only really started to change following the 2014 Russian intervention in Ukraine when Obama began to take a greater interest in the region and adopted a rather more robust approach towards Moscow.

Less interest in Polish internal affairs

Moreover, some government supporters even see the Trump presidency as, in some respects at least, a source of potential opportunities to actually improve relations between the US and the current Polish administration. Obama exerted both public and private behind-the-scenes pressure on Law and Justice over the constitutional tribunal crisis. For example, during the July NATO summit in an implicit criticism of the Law and Justice government Obama used a joint press conference with the ruling party-backed Polish President Andrzej Duda to express his concern that “more work needs to be done” to end the constitutional impasse.

Moreover, there was every reason to expect that a Hillary Clinton administration would have been an equally harsh, if not harsher, critic of the Law and Justice government on this issue. For example, during the US election campaign former President Bill Clinton, Hilary’s husband and (for obvious reasons) one of her closest political allies, attacked the Polish (and Hungarian) government for democratic backsliding referring to it as a “Putin-like” dictatorship. The Trump administration, on the other hand, is much less likely to become involved in Polish internal affairs. While Law and Justice’s US-based critics remain well-placed in the American foreign policy establishment and influential in the US opinion-forming media, they generally supported Clinton so will probably not exert such a great influence on Trump.

An anti-elitist and anti-liberal zeitgeist?

More broadly, until recently Law and Justice appeared to stand outside the Western international mainstream in its rejection of the hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus on issues such as multi-culturalism and traditional family values, which it saw as potentially undermining Poland’s national identity. However, whatever misgivings many on the Polish conservative right may have about Trump’s unpredictability in international affairs and questionable personal morality, there are clear parallels between the way that his electoral success appeared to symbolise a broader popular backlash against the liberal political, economic and cultural establishment and Law and Justice’s stunning election victories last year. The latter also reflected widespread disillusionment with what many Poles saw as the country’s out-of-touch and complacent liberal ruling elites, whom they felt were disconnected from ordinary people’s concerns, and a sense that they had not participated sufficiently in the country’s recent economic success.

In this sense, Trump’s victory allows Law and Justice leaders and supporters to present the party’s domestic political success and broader critique of the liberal-left elite as not simply an anomalous and isolated local Polish phenomenon. Rather, in spite of the risks and concerns that a Trump presidency may create for Polish foreign and security policy, the ruling party can now position itself as being in the vanguard of a new anti-elitist and anti-liberal zeitgeist exemplified by the US presidential election result that appears to be sweeping through the West.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. He is author of ‘Poland Within the European Union: New Awkward Partner or New Heart of Europe?’ (Routledge 2012) and blogs regularly on current Polish political developments at: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/.

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