WARSAW — On the European continent, where anti-Americanism is a default setting, Poland has long stood out as one of the most reliably pro-U.S. countries, no matter who is installed at the White House.
While that’s unlikely to change with the incoming administration of Barack Obama,
the relationship — however close — is likely to become less important for both countries.
In a recent interview, Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, stressed that “for Poland, the United States is the most important ally.”
However, in economic, cultural and political terms, close ties between Warsaw and Washington appear to carry less weight than ever.
The U.S. was only the sixth largest foreign investor in Poland in 2007, representing a mere 5 percent and far behind that of Germany and France, with 17 percent and 11 percent, respectively. Nor did the U.S. make it into the top 10 of Poland’s trading partners.
Migration has also become less important. Over the past century, millions of Poles have migrated to the United States, with the latest wave taking place after the collapse of communism in 1989.
Despite strict visa requirements, tough admission criteria and long line-ups outside the U.S. embassy in Warsaw — exacerbated by tighter U.S. security following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — thousands of Poles made their way to the U.S.
Poland’s 2004 entry into the European Union, however, opened the way for Poles to work legally in a growing number of EU countries, rendering the U.S. a much less-attractive destination.
According to Poland’s statistical agency, of the 2.3 million Poles living outside of their home country at the end of 2007, 1.93 million had temporarily settled in other EU countries.
Poland’s EU membership has also shifted its political focus decisively toward Brussels. Warsaw is obliged to resolve many of its most important issues — from fighting for bigger budget allocations to discussing how to deal with the global financial crisis — within the bloc.
Strategically, Poland’s entry into the EU has given it the diplomatic confidence to pursue such crucial joint interests as trying to bring Ukraine closer to the Union, with the aim of its eventual accession.
These developments have left military affairs as the dominant strand in the Polish-U.S. relationship.
Poland was one of the four original participants in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The leftist government of the day went into the war hoping for closer ties with the U.S., as well as for lucrative contracts for Polish companies in the post-conflict rebuilding phase.
The war has become increasingly unpopular in Poland, and the former Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, complained loudly over having been lured into the fighting by false U.S. claims over the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
The center-right government of Tusk, meanwhile, withdrew the last Polish troops from Iraq last year, although he said its soldiers remained in Afghanistan “on a really large scale.”
Perhaps the most pressing issue involving Washington and Warsaw, however, is the proposed missile defense shield. Poland has signed a preliminary agreement that would allow the U.S. to build a missile interceptor base on Polish territory.
In an example of how central the issue has become, a senior official at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw said immediately after the October 2007 parliamentary elections: “The only thing we really care about is how it affects missile defense.”
According to Washington, the shield is central to protecting the U.S. and Europe against the threat of a missile strike by a rogue nation, most plausibly Iran.
Warsaw, however, does not see Iran as a realistic danger. Instead, the U.S. base is seen as a potential counterweight to any future Russian ambitions to reinstate its influence in the region. It was significant that the deal was signed in August, during the Russian attack on Georgia.
Warsaw took a big political risk in negotiating the agreement, which is not widely popular at home and not supported by such leading EU members as France and Italy. It has also strained ties with Russia, which has threatened to attack the base. Poland now faces the risk that the new Obama administration will bail out of the defense system, which has never been strongly supported by Democrats.
In his first conversation with the U.S. president-elect, Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, reportedly raised the issue of the shield, and his senior advisor said the Polish leader had received assurances that the project would not be canceled.
An advisor to Obama denied such assurances were given, saying: “President Kaczynski raised missile defense, but President-elect Obama made no commitment on it.”
For the new U.S. administration, the challenge will be to retain Polish affection while remaining realistic about the true significance of Washington-Warsaw relations.