The U.S. president’s stop in Warsaw isn’t a diplomatic coup. It’s a divisive distraction.
- By Wojciech PrzybylskiWojciech Przybylski is editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and chairman of Res Publica Foundation in Warsaw. His new book ‘Understanding Central Europe’ co-edited with Marcin Moskalewicz will be published by Routledge later this year.
The enthusiasm in Poland about the pending visit of the president of the United States Wednesday is palpable.
A group calling itself “Poland for Donald Trump” has launched a Facebook event in order to welcome Donald Trump to Warsaw. There are posters up around town advertising a celebratory picnic, sponsored by several of the country’s major publicly-owned companies. There are reports that members of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) have been asked to bring up to 50 members of their extended circles to a planned presidential speech so that Trump feels like he’s received a warm Polish welcome. Realistically, however, such efforts are likely to be unnecessary: the excitement from Poland’s truly pro-American, pro-Trump and anti-immigrant public about the pending visit is real, and they are likely to turn up in greater numbers in Warsaw than Americans did in DC on Trump’s inauguration day.
Trump’s visit ahead of the G20 meeting in Hamburg is being treated in Poland as a diplomatic coup. In a limited sense, that’s fair: The visit will coincide with a meeting of the Three Seas Initiative, an effort to develop cooperation among the EU’s eastern states established by Polish President Andrzej Duda less than a year ago, in August 2016. Nabbing a visit from a U.S. president this early on is a genuine P.R. triumph for an obscure regional grouping whose economies put together make up less than 10 percent of the EU’s GDP.
But it’s undeniable that some members of the Polish government also see the Trump visit – his first stop on only his second time overseas since assuming office – as both an implicit endorsement, and a chance to thumb their noses at the European elites based in Brussels and other capitals of western Europe. (The visit comes less than a month after the EU launched legal proceedings against three member states, Poland, Hungary and Czechia over their unwillingness to accept refugees, and takes place against the backdrop of Poland’s ongoing feud with French President Emmanuel Macron, who recently chastised eastern Europe for treating the EU as a supermarket.) And it’s here where Poland’s enthusiasm about Trump is not just misplaced, but dangerous. American presidents have previously found that exploiting European divisions is useful for the United States, precisely because it undermines Europe’s collective interests.
The idea of “New Europe” was a term coined by the George W. Bush administration. When the United States decided to invade Iraq in early 2003, the term was deployed by Donald Rumsfeld to differentiate, and celebrate, the solidarity of new NATO members – the 13 countries which sent letters supporting U.S. policy on Iraq, which included Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Latvia, and others– from the reluctance of the U.S.’s old allies, Germany and France. This American-drawn distinction between the Old Europe and the New not only signaled problems within the U.S.-EU security arrangements, it also created serious diplomatic tensions ahead of EU enlargement decisions over the next two months. French President Jacques Chirac at the time declared it a moment where his fellow Europeans had “missed the opportunity to keep silent.”
In the years since, intra-European politics has only grown more intricate; the continent is now criss-crossed by smaller groupings like the Three Seas Initiative and larger regional alliances like the Visegrad Group, the Benelux Union, the Nordic Council. Other countries see in these regional unions a chance to weaken Europe’s position and potential on the global stage, by exploiting divisions. China, for instance, has developed its own 16+1 format, that groups together EU and non-EU countries from central and eastern Europe, including, among others, Poland, Hungary, Serbia and Belarus. Beijing sees an opportunity to undermine EU unity by offering investment funds to certain countries hungry for new roads to prosperity. Russia, meanwhile, is weaponizing culture to deepen European divisions; a recent study by the think tank Political Capital based in Budapest concluded that the Kremlin purposefully deploys notions about “traditional” society to sow divisions between eastern Europe and the nihilistic and decadent West. Feeding these divisions for domestic political purposes is something all leaders on the continent should be wary of; they can quickly be turned against us.
Trump’s European visit this week is only going to highlight current differences of opinion. The trip is likely to be one of stark contrasts: He will move from Warsaw, where he is expected to be greeted with crowds of supporters and cordial, back-slapping meetings, to Hamburg, where he is almost sure to be met with street protests, and where German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised there will be difficult conversations.
It would be one thing if the risks of a Trump visit had a chance of being offset by great potential benefits. But realistically, Poland, and central Europe more broadly, have little material to gain from the United States at the moment. The U.S. has already increased its military presence in the region, with about 900 troops stationed on Polish soil, even more than had been originally promised by the Obama administration. The LNG terminal in Świnoujście – a strategically important facility allowing for more energy independence in the region – has only recently celebrated the arrival of its first shipment from the USA and awaits further shipments from, among others, Qatar. Poland will likely take the opportunity to support the recent sanctions that were proposed by the U.S. Senate on contractors for the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) project as well as other significant Russian businesses, but this, too, is divisive: The proposal that has been denounced by Germany and Austria, whose companies and economies would also be hurt.
The visit, in other words, is solely a PR exercise for both sides, where very little of significance will transpire: Trump gets to make a triumphant return to the continent to waving crowds, having skulked away last time after losing a handshake-off to Macron; the Polish government gets to demonstrate that there are other governments out there – big ones! – that share its skepticism of refugees (with a little bit of publicity for a regional cooperation initiative as a bonus).
It should go without saying, however, that a bit of goodwill from a troubled U.S. administration can hardly compensate for a healthy relationship with Brussels. Poland’s economy depends on the EU not only because of major investment money that has flowed in from Brussels (and which has vastly exceeded the scale of the U.S. Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II). Its main trade partner by far is the EU: Germany accounts for 26 percent of exports; Czechia 6.7 percent; the U.K. 6.5; France 5.2. The U.S. accounts for just 2.5-3 percent, according to the 2015 Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity. Poland’s laws are shaped by the laws prepared by the European Commission and voted on by the European Parliament in Brussels. While NATO might be the source of Poland’s hard security — what protects it against potential aggressors — the EU forms the backbone of its soft security: its support against economic and resource pressures from Russia. The very worst thing that Warsaw could do, once all the pomp and ceremony of a presidential visit is over, is to view a little bit of attention from the White House as a license to grow even bolder in its fights closer to home.
Image credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images