The decline of America and Poland's special relationship

WARSAW, Poland — The first of September, symbolic as the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, also marked the end of an era of special closeness between Poland and the United States.

The dignitaries jostling for space near the Gdansk memorial where the opening shots of WWII were fired included Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The U.S. was represented by Gen. James Jones, the national security adviser.

Even Jones was a step up from the original suggestion: William Perry, the former defense secretary, according to Slawomir Nowak, a close adviser of Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister.

The low priority given by the U.S. to an event that was of huge symbolic importance to the Poles is a sign of Washington’s shifting priorities. President Barack Obama has his hands full with the aftereffects of the global economic crisis, wrapping up the war in Iraq and expanding the one in Afghanistan, while keeping an eye on China, North Korea and Iran — all as he tries to reform the U.S. health care system. It seems the administration has little energy left for cultivating a relationship in an area of the world that does not need immediate attention. “The U.S. has acknowledged that the transformation of Europe was a success and that there is no need to be occupied with this region,” said Adam Daniel Rotfeld, a former Polish foreign minister, in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper.

The shift in views is already becoming apparent. While during the presidency of George W. Bush, Poles were more supportive of the U.S. leader than almost any other country in the world, including the U.S., a new survey shows a distinct cooling. Western Europe, which had shuddered at Bush, is strongly pro-Obama, while central Europe is more wary of the new U.S. leader’s overtures to Russia.

Last year, the Transatlantic Trends poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund and other think tanks found that 44 percent of Poles backed Bush, one of the highest levels of support he had in Europe, while the controversial Texan had the favor of only 11 percent of the French. This year, only 55 percent of Poles support Obama, the lowest level in Europe, while 88 percent of the French like Obama.

While the decision over who to send to the Sept. 1 ceremonies was purely symbolic, the U.S. disengagement from central Europe can be seen in more tangible policy decisions.

The most important policy change involves the missile defense shield, part of which was supposed to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, in order to intercept missiles from a rogue regime, such as Iran. Under the Bush administration, the Poles negotiated a tough deal, insisting on the emplacement of a battery of Patriot missiles in return for America building a missile interceptor base in Poland.

The program provoked outrage in Russia, which saw it as a potential threat, and worry among Poland’s European Union allies. In recent weeks U.S. officials, including Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, head of the Missile Defense Agency, have begun to suggest that it might make more sense not to base part of the system in central Europe.

Central European leaders have become so worried about the perceived drift in U.S. policy that several of them, including former Czech President Vaclav Havel and former Polish President Lech Walesa, sent a letter to the Obama administration stressing that missile defense will be seen as a litmus test of the importance the U.S. places on its ties with central Europe.

The letter, which was not enthusiastically received in Washington, also warned the U.S. to make efforts to keep ties close, because a new generation of leaders coming to power in central Europe is less likely to be reflexively pro-American.

Poles were hugely grateful for the stalwart anti-communism of Ronald Reagan, and saw the U.S. as the best guarantor of their independence from Russia after the end of communism in 1989. It was U.S. pressure that saw Poland and other countries of the region admitted to NATO in 1999, and the Poles reciprocated by buying 48 F-16 fighters from U.S.-based Lockheed Martin despite competing bids from European manufacturers.

Now, although Poland is in no sense anti-American, there is a growing feeling that the country overdid it in focusing so intently on Washington. One big reason for the reassessment is Poland’s growing confidence as a member of the European Union, and a realization that the most vital issues for Poland are dealt with in Brussels. Another is the calculation that being one of the closest U.S. allies in Europe has carried more costs than benefits. Poland outraged its western European allies by participating in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but the mission there — where the Poles were in charge of a whole province — produced few economic or diplomatic benefits, and the military pulled out of Iraq a year ago. However, Poland is still fighting in Afghanistan.

By enthusiastically participating in the war on terrorism, Poland now faces accusations that it allowed U.S. agents to imprison and possibly torture suspected terrorists on its territory.

A continuing irritant is the U.S. rule that visiting Poles obtain visas, an issue that comes up frequently and which Poles feel slights their contribution as U.S. allies.

“Visas, it’s always about the visas,” complained an official at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw. Poles need visas to enter the U.S. because too many of their applications are rejected to qualify for visa-free entry, according to rules set by Congress.

In the end, replacing Perry with Jones at the Sept. 1 ceremonies saved Polish feelings, but did not obscure the increasingly frayed ties between the two allies.