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The decline of America and Poland's special relationship

In the Obama era, both the US and Poland turn their focus elsewhere.

U.S. President Barack Obama, center, meets with Poland's President Lech Kaczynski, right, and Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the EU summit in Prague on April 5, 2009. (Jim Young/Reuters)

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.