The view from the ground.

The Polish Tiger

With its newfound economic and political clout, Poland is increasingly leaving the United States out in the cold.

People carrying a giant Polish flag gather in front of the Presidential Palace during a memorial service commemorating the Smolensk plane crash victims in Warsaw on April 10, 2011. Poland marked the one-year anniversary of a plane crash in Russia that killed president Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other high-profile Poles, amid bitter domestic divisions and a row with Moscow. AFP PHOTO / Marcin Lobaczewski (Photo credit should read Marcin Lobaczewski/AFP/Getty Images)

WARSAW — Poland extended Barack Obama an enthusiastic greeting upon his arrival on Friday, but it’s increasingly clear that relations with the United States are no longer a top priority for policymakers here. Buoyed by the confidence of a dynamic economy — the only European Union member to have survived the global financial crisis without falling into recession — it’s the EU and Germany, Poland’s historic foe, that now capture Poles’ imagination.

“America is as important for us as in the past, but Europe has become more important than before,” said Bogdan Klich, Poland’s defense minister, in a recent radio interview. It was no accident that Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, chose Berlin as the destination for  his first foreign trip after being elected in 2007, nor was it that Bronislaw Komorowski, Poland’s president, went to Brussels soon after last year’s presidential election.

Komoroswki has reoriented Polish foreign policy after the death of his right-wing predecessor, Lech Kaczynski, in an airplane crash in Russia last April. Obama was prevented from attending the funeral because of Icelandic volcanic ash clouds, but is making up for that now.

He will be feted during his two-day visit to the Polish capital, but he may also notice a new degree of reserve during his meetings with Tusk and Komorowski. Backed by a steadily growing economy — GDP grew by 1.7 percent during the global downturn in 2009, and last year expanded nearly 4 percent — Poland’s leaders feel they have the clout to steer a more independent course for their country’s foreign policy, one that assumes more leadership in their own region.

Of course, in previous decades, Poland’s aspirations were fixated on the United States. Although Washington acquiesced in the post-war division of Europe which left Poland a Soviet satellite, U.S. status as the core of the anti-Soviet movement in the Cold War left it much less tainted in Polish eyes than Britain and France by that wartime betrayal. Plus, the two countries already had existing cultural ties: millions of Poles had emigrated to the United States, starting in the 19th century and continuing throughout the communist era.

The warm feelings were strengthened by Washington’s strong support for the Solidarity trade union after the communists tried to crush it in 1981. Poland’s joining of NATO in 1999 cemented the U.S. role as the ultimate guarantor of Polish independence in the case of a resurgence of Russian imperialism — something that still remains a worry for a segment of the Polish population and a standby of right-wing political rhetoric.

During the first two decades of Polish independence, governments of both the left and the right saw Washington as their key foreign partner. That was in large measure why Poland was one of only three allied countries — the others being Britain and Australia — whose armed forces took part in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. (Polish Special Forces helped secure some Iraqi oil drilling platforms.) At the same time, Poland provided one of its military airports for American intelligence services to use for their secret detention program of terrorist suspects.

“When I got to Washington, my ambition was to be as influential as the ambassador from Norway,” a Polish diplomat at the time told me. But after Poland’s support for the invasion of Iraq, his Washington ranking soared: “Now the Norwegian looks at me and drools.”

Warsaw’s enthusiasm for the Bush administration alienated its allies in France and Germany, which were much more skeptical of the case of attacking Iraq, and saw Poland and the other central European states as American stalking horses in Europe. French President Jacques Chirac dismissed this “New Europe,” saying that the EU hopefuls had missed a great opportunity to “shut up” in the run-up to the war on Iraq.

The triumph of the right-wing Law and Justice party in 2005, led by the twin Kaczynski brothers — Lech, who became the president, and Jaroslaw, who was the prime minister — brought pro-U.S. policy to its peak. The Kaczynskis were suspicious of the EU, fearing that Poland’s traditional culture and Roman Catholicism would be diluted in a larger, cosmopolitan Europe. They saw Poland’s traditional enemies, Germany and Russia, as potential foes, and relations with both neighbors soured. Poland’s only true friend, they felt, was the United States.

Lech Kaczynski tried to build up an anti-Russian alliance of ex-Soviet states east of Poland: from Lithuania on the Baltic to a post-Orange Revolution Ukraine to Georgia in the Caucasus. During the brief Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Kaczynski even flew to the Georgian capital with a bevy of regional leaders to lend support to an embattled Mikhail Saakashvili — a debt that the Georgian president repaid by being one of the few leaders to brave the ash clouds and fly to Poland for Kaczynski’s funeral last year.

While Lech built up Poland as an anti-Russian bulwark, his brother Jaroslaw took aim at the western half of the European continent.

Jaroslaw got into an embarrassing fight with the EU over the Lisbon Treaty, a document that revamped European institutions. In the delicate negotiations that finally concluded with the treaty’s ratification in 2007, Jaroslaw demanded that Poland be accorded additional voting rights in EU bodies because of all of the Polish citizens who had been killed by Germany during World War II, ostentatiously breaking a European taboo of not cudgeling Berlin with its wartime sins. Every way Jaroslaw looked, he saw harbingers of the sort of geopolitical violence that scarred 20th century Poland; he even raised the threatening (not to say, absurd) prospect of Berlin aggressively trying to retake parts of western Poland that had belonged to Germany before 1945. Poland’s brashness in the Kaczynski-era betrayed an essential feeling of insecurity.

Poland’s attitude changed dramatically with the election of Tusk and his centrist Civic Platform Party in 2007. Tusk’s policies were motivated by fresh confidence, rather than old fears. He also tapped into the growing Polish discomfort with the close — and to many Poles, one-sided — Polish-American relationship. The Iraq invasion was an obvious disaster, and the commercial contracts that Polish companies were promised never materialized. Allowing CIA flights to Poland opened the country to international investigations and allegations of permitting torture on its territory.

There are other longer-standing irritants as well. Despite frequent promises by Washington to change the policy, Poland remains the only member of the EU’s Schengen passport-free zone to need a visa to travel to the United States. Washington has said that Poland does not meet congressional requirements for the visa waiver program (which requires that less than 3 percent of visa applications are rejected), but the subject is an open wound. On a recent visit to the United States, Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, Poland’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, shed diplomatic courtesies when asked about the subject: “Maybe one day here in Washington people will treat Poland as a reliable and important partner in the European Union, not just some country with sentimental links.” (In an interview, one U.S. diplomat in Warsaw simply implored, “Don’t talk to me about visas.”)

“It is certain that Poland is one of the most pro-American countries in Europe, only that the temperature of that pro-Americanism has fallen,” said Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper this week.

When asked why Poland is no longer as enthusiastic about America, Sikorski replied: “It comes from American mistakes. The administration of President Bush promised all sorts of things to the [social-democratic government which ruled from 2002 to 2005] in return for our engagement in Iraq — and did not follow through. Now we are seeing the consequences.”

The Obama administration further soured ties with Warsaw by its sudden decision in 2009 to back out of a plan to build part of a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, a project that had aroused Moscow’s fury. The project had been supported by political elites in both countries as a bulwark against Russian aggression, but it never found much favor with the broader Polish public. To make matters worse, Washington announced its withdrawal from the project on Sept. 17, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s attack on eastern Poland during the opening weeks of World War II.

Under Tusk and Sikorski, Poland has concertedly mended ties with Brussels and Berlin. The majority of Polish emigrants now go elsewhere in Europe, not across the Atlantic. And Germany is now Poland’s key foreign policy and economic partner. Polish factories have become integral parts of the German supply chain, and they are profiting from Germany’s export-led boom.

Warsaw has also achieved some measure of détente with Moscow — though Poland’s dependence on Russia for almost all of its oil and two-thirds of its natural gas still keeps it anxious. (The rest of its current grand strategy notwithstanding, Poland has not hesitated to invite American companies to search for possible shale gas deposits on its territory.)

But Poland’s policymakers have made a decision to tie their fate to Europe; and increasingly, Europe knows its fate is tied with the rising power of Poland. The close ties and mutual respect is increasingly on display — as when Sikorski and his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, journeyed last December to Minsk to persuade (unsuccessfully) Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko to hold free presidential elections.

“After the time of Americanization, of certain illusions whose espousal bordered with a loss of sovereignty, there is a change in Poland’s foreign policy,” said Roman Kuzniar, Komorowski’s foreign policy adviser. “We are now accommodating our real interests, not overblown ambitions.”

Obama should enjoy the events held in his honor this week, but it would be a mistake to interpret them as signs of deference or dependence. Those days, for Poland, are over.

Jan Cienski is a senior fellow at demosEuropa.

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